During my medical training years ago, I was assigned to the University Health Center in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, for my internship. While working at the clinic, I rented a room in a mansion. The home was owned by a couple in their sixties. While I finalized the rental agreement with the lady of the house, the husband was not there. When I asked her about him, she said he was in the hospital. She said nothing further. I didn’t ask any follow-up questions, because I could see from the painful expression on her face, she didn’t want to talk about it.
When I came back from work the following day, I saw her sitting at the kitchen table, looking very worried. I asked if she was all right. It was at this point that she brought out the family photo album and started showing me photos of her and her husband. They had been a “high society” couple. The photo album was full of images of them in the company of famous politicians, movie stars and international celebrities. It was obvious from the pictures that they were once a very active couple, and they seemed to have had plenty of good times together.
Sorrowfully, she said that her husband had smoked cigarettes for 30 years and that he was dying of lung cancer in the hospital. “The fool won’t stop smoking,” she said. I felt sorry that he could not enjoy their beautiful home and instead had to spend his days in the hospital. She warned that he’d be coming home in a couple of days to stay for a few weeks before returning to the hospital.
Before long, a hospital van brought him home and wheeled him to his room, which was right next to mine. He was hooked up to an oxygen tank, and was given a walker to support his weight. His bathroom was across from his room. I mention this detail, because it took the man at least 10 minutes to walk from his room across the hall to the bathroom with that walker. He ran out of breath after taking only two steps and had to wait a while to recuperate before taking another step.
It was a painful sight to watch this man with an oxygen tube trailing behind him, as he painstakingly struggled to make it across the hallway to the bathroom. On occasion, he was unable to make it across in time, thereby wetting his trousers. At night, he couldn’t sleep because he had extreme difficulty breathing. I couldn’t sleep either, for I could hear him struggling to breathe. After a few days his condition grew worse. He was taken back to the hospital where he died shortly after.
The sad part about his death was that he had created a lot of suffering, not only for himself but also for his family. As a result of that suffering, his passing came as a great relief to the entire family. For the last five years of his metastatic lung cancer, his family had been working around the clock trying to take care of him. One person would buy oxygen, another would pick him up from the hospital, and another would cook for him or another would bathe him.
In a sense, his complete dependence on other people became a burden to his family. It was also a source of great pain to the man, because at one time he was a very vibrant and independent man. I observed that the usual mourning that follows the death of a loved one was absent. Family members had apparently prepared themselves for the inevitable.
It was an eye-opening experience for me. I wish that all the young people today who are puffing away on their cigarettes and trying to appear “cool” had the opportunity to see the devastating effects of smoking. When we are young, our youthful exuberance deceives us into thinking that we are invincible, that nothing can happen to us. We continue to abuse our bodies until they simply cannot take it anymore.
A wise person once asked, “If you do not take care of your body, where do you plan to live?” We need to develop a sense of radical self-responsibility and remember the good old saying, “God helps those who help themselves.”
May the blessings be!
Self responsibility is a familiar concept, but when it comes to medical care, the concept vanishes. Each person has a measure of control over their life course and ability to prevent injury and disease, but diseases often emerge because of careless disregard or risky behaviors.