Celia* cowered in fear in her chair as I walked in the door. She had seen people in white coats with stethoscopes dangling around their necks and she knew what that meant: something was going to hurt.
The tragic irony in seeing Alzheimer’s patients is that the rules are very similar to seeing pediatric patients. Slow. Cautious. Take the focus off of the doctor-patient interaction. Harmless as a dove. Wise as a serpent. The healing serpent that symbolizes the medical profession. The serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness for the healing of God’s people.
I looked around the room that Celia now called home. Pictures of her and her husband and children graced the dresser next to her recliner. Poinsettias for Christmas. A happy birthday balloon hovered over her head.
I sat on the bed on the opposite side of the room and waited to earn trust. I asked about the handsome man in those photos, the man who now came in the evenings to lovingly feed her so that she would continue to eat. Everything is better coming from the hand of someone who loves you.
Celia told me a story about her handsome husband in the photos in what only could be described as word salad– a mixture of intelligible half-words with unintelligible expressions of passion. Though the words were incomprehensible, the sentiment was not. They were still in love after all of these years.
As her eyes and mouth danced through the memories of years gone by, I approached quietly on my knees to the side of her corduroy recliner and sat and listened. I responded as if I understood every word she said, because in a way, I did. The years had been hard, but good. Her husband meant the words of his vows more than 50 years ago, when he promised, “In sickness and in health.” She hated what her body had done to her, but his tender love still carried her through the darkness and confusion.
I took out my forehead thermometer, and showed it to her. I made it dance like a puppet, then touched it to my forehead. The puppet thermometer danced again and touched her forehead.
Beep. No fever.
My O2 saturation monitor was the friendly alligator who danced and hugged my finger. The O2 sat then danced and tried to hug her finger. She pulled back in anger.
I had violated her trust. How could I let an alligator bite her finger? Shame on me.
I recoiled, and sat back down on the floor next to her recliner, knowing how much physical exam I had to do, but also understanding our relationship was still fragile.
“Silent night, holy night” I began to sing. Her eyes darted around her mind. This was familiar. Was it good? Was it bad? What was she feeling?
“All is calm, all is bright . . .” Her darting eyes met mine and locked on. Her mouth made chewing motions but was silent.
“Round yon virgin, mother and child . . .” Her mouth began to form the very words I was singing — the first intelligible words of the visit.
“Holy infant so tender and mild . . . “ Her eyes darted away from me. The vulnerability was too much.
“Sleep in heavenly peace . . .” Her eyes came back to mine. There was something in that phrase she liked.
“Sleep in heavenly peace.” With her eyes still locked on mine, she reached up and caressed my cheek.
“Yeeessssss,” she muttered. Sleep in heavenly peace. Yes, that does sound good, Celia, doesn’t it? Life on earth is hard. Heaven is close, but still just too far away.
I sang Silent Night to her again as my hands examined her. I paused between phrases to listen to the sounds of her heart, lungs, and abdomen. And the friendly alligator stayed on her finger long enough to read her oxygen saturation and pulse. When I sang the final line, “Sleep in heavenly peace” again, she was resting, holding my hand, and looking at me with a tender love that can only come from God. And I loved her right back. Everything is better coming from the hand of someone who loves you.
More than 2000 years after God Almighty wrapped Himself in the flesh a tiny Jewish baby boy, the songs inspired by that night allowed me to share a holy moment with my sweet patient Celia. Thank you Jesus, for connecting our hearts and minds. And thank you Celia for reminding me that even though our earthly bodies may bring us to the brink of hellish suffering, heaven is just a song-glimpse away.
“Dearest Lord, may I see you today and every day in the person of your sick, and, whilst serving them, minister unto you.
Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognize you, and say:
“Jesus, my patient, how sweet it is to serve you.”
Lord, give me this seeing faith, then my work will never be monotonous. I will ever find joy in humoring the fancies and gratifying the wishes of all poor sufferers.
O beloved sick, how doubly dear you are to me, when you personify Christ; and what a privilege is mine to be allowed to tend you.
Sweetest Lord, make me appreciative of the dignity of my high vocation, and its many responsibilities. Never permit me to disgrace it by giving way to coldness, unkindness, or impatience.
And O God, while you are Jesus my patient, deign also to be to me a patient Jesus, bearing with my faults, looking only to my intention, which is to love and serve you in the person of each one of your sick.
Lord, increase my faith, bless my efforts and work, now and for evermore, Amen.”
— Mother Teresa
*Name changed to protect her privacy