Misunderstandings and Handicaps

“Anything can happen to anybody. I remember the last movie
I did I played a paraplegic. I worked in a rehab center so I could
simulate being paraplegic. Every day I would leave in my car and say “Thank God that’s not me.” Seven months later I was in this condition. And I remember in a way the smugness of that, as if I was privileged in a way. The point is we are all one great big family and any one of us can get hurt at any moment. That taught me a really big lesson about complacency. We should never walk by somebody who’s in a wheelchair and be afraid
of them or think of them as a stranger. It could be us – in fact, it is us.”

Christopher Reeve, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey

I met him during my time in the Navy. His father had been a retired captain. He was born with cerebral palsy. His mother had a serious psychiatric illness and was not around, either physically or in soul, for most of his life.

I never met his father, but the evidence showed that he must have been an extraordinary gentleman. He raised this severely handicapped boy on his own. Not only that: he made sure that he would be independent from an early age. No therapy or means of treatment was spared, although in those days we did not have any effective medication for his condition.

By the time that he became my patient he was in his early 40’s. His parents were both deceased. He kept the family home, not far from the naval base where I worked. He had full military dependent privileges, and he received a small pension in addition to the passive income that he received from the investments made from his inheritance.

He was passed on to me by one of my colleagues whose service time was up. He told me that he wanted no one else to take care of Fred. He also said that he expected me to be Fred’s friend; that I had to take him to dinner or a movie once in a while, and that I should make a special effort to understand his speech; to never ignore what he said just because I found it impossible to decipher it.

Everyone at the dispensary knew Fred. He was impossible to miss. Years of relentless therapy had taught him how to walk, but he could only do so with a severely spastic gait that looked like he was crouching one minute, leaping the next. His knees took a beating. For the most part he spoke loudly, and it was extremely difficult to understand any sentence that dragged on for more than a few words. He drooled almost continuously.

My first encounter with him happened before my colleague left. Fred had come in for an appointment to check on his elevated blood pressure. As he loped down the hallway, headed for the lab, he saw one of the nurses in the distance. He hollered a greeting at the same time that a small girl, headed back from the lab, faced him. She began to scream in fear; she crouched, panic paralyzing her, and she began to tremble. I could see Fred’s concern, but he had obviously faced this situation in the past, and he knew better than to try to console her. He walked on and smiled at the nurse.

Our first visit went well. Fred was brilliant and well read. He occasionally became impatient with me when I could not understand him. My friend had been listening to him for two years and had a better grasp of his speech pattern. Over time I got better, but never proficient by any means. We did become friends. He came to our home for dinner. We went to the officer’s club for dinner and drinks. We did a few movies, and some cultural functions. As time wore on, I developed a clear understanding of his physical and social problems. I learned enough to fill two books.

I will give you a few examples. Fred drove. His car was equipped with hand controls because he could master them better than his feet. It was an adventure. He could not maintain a straight line; he jabbed at the steering wheel with either hand when it seemed almost certain that we were going to run off the road. I would have much preferred to be the driver all the time, particularly at night, even more so after a couple of drinks at the “O” club. But of course I could not do this to him. I learned to expect the zigzag routes and at times I closed my eyes. Fred never had an accident, and he had an excellent insurance rating.

One time on his way over to pick me up he was stopped by a vigilant police officer. Once the policeman heard his loud, garbled speech he was sure that Fred was drunk. Of course, he could not walk a straight line. It took a breath test and two phone calls. He was let go.

There were many other incidents and lessons. He could not hold a glass of water, or wine. He was well equipped: he always carried a straw with him. At the “O” clubs everyone knew him, but at some restaurants there were snobbish creeps who looked at him in just a certain way, you know what I mean, when he drank wine through a straw.

A significant portion of Fred’s meals ended up falling out of his plate. I learned to cut his meat. I remember the woman wearing the “I love Jesus” T shirt, or something in that vein, that I overheard coming out of the bathroom. She was upset that the restaurant had allowed Fred in; she said something to her companion about “not normal” people staying home and not ruining everyone else’s appetite.

There was the time when we went to see a popular movie. There were a few racy scenes. On the way home Fred asked me if I thought he would ever be able to find a woman who loved him in that way. I mumbled a few unconvincing words.

Fred must have lived through thousands of these episodes. He remained strong; undaunted; independent. He was frequently lonely. There were a few of his father’s surviving friends who kept in touch. Otherwise it was me. I remember thinking then that I owed him more than I was giving him.

When my tour of duty was over I tried to talk many colleagues into taking over Fred’s care, on the same terms that I had accepted a year previously. I had no takers. I did get many odd looks, as if everyone wondered if I was insane.

A few years later Fred visited me in St. Louis. He was a shell of his former self. Years of pounding on his knees had destroyed his joints. He could no longer walk. He lost his independence. There was talk of some form of long-term care facility. He was still bright and insightful. I have seldom felt emptier; sadder; more helpless. I lost touch with him after that visit.

I think about him often. How much he taught me. How much I owe him. How hard it was for me to become comfortable with the person behind the handicap. How I would have never, ever become the doctor I am now had I not accepted my friend’s request to care for him.

Think about Fred the next time you see someone in his situation. They are not different. They are us.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. lolaroig2013

    All I can say is that most of your life you have been climbing the stairs to get to heaven, not only through your vocation to be a doctor, but taking risks through difficult paths in what seems to be a spiritual journey. As weird as some of them might seem, “going in a car driven by a handicap that is “half” drunk is a challenge to common sense, that most of us would not venture. But how many of us can say that we have not been in “risky” situations with friends under the influence of “solidarity or fraternal love”.

  2. Lola: Thank you; you’re always such a fan, much more than I am of myself. To be fair, he was not half drunk. He took good care of himself. And no, I don’t ever think about heaven. I do what I do because it feels right, and because I’m getting out of it as much or more than the people I try to help. June: your comment came through. I know this blog hits home for you more than most people.

  3. Cordell Webb

    It must be hard to understand how hard some people have to work to live and survive everyday life. I have known a few people with various types of hardships. Our daughter, a nurse, does pediatric home care and her current patient is a down syndrome child of 24. She is physically about 10 and mentally 2. She does not speak or walk and “plays” with infant toys. Her father left the family when the child was born and realized the handicaps of their youngest child. The mother has her own handicaps and has two older daughters. This family is often what we call “disfunctional” and create problems for their mother. She comes home after caring for her and looks at her own children (5 and 7) and is thankful.