Earlier this month the national newspapers reported the death of L/Cpl Tasker, a military dog-handler working in Afghanistan. What makes this sad loss of a member of our armed forces even more poignant is the fact that his specialist dog, Theo, died of a seizure three hours after the death of his master; such was the bond between the two.
The above case may not be considered unusual by animal lovers, who often form strong emotional bonds with their pets. That the same applies to humans is also well-known; I have often encountered stories where someone with a serious illness has evidently stayed alive against all odds, simply to meet an important personal or family deadline (a wedding anniversary or landmark birthday, for example). The determined power of the human spirit is the only factor deciding on life or death. Never, however, had I met the situation in person until shortly after I qualified as a doctor:
'She refuses to die whilst her husband is still alive,' said the staff nurse.
I was in the first week of my first hospital job as a House Surgeon in Kent. Mary (as I will call her) was in her mid sixties and extremely frail. She was quiet and undemanding, and held little in the way of conversation apart from requesting a daily report on her husband. Her diagnosis had been confirmed some four months previously; inoperable cancer of the ovary. Over the ensuing months, Mary became progressively weaker, being unable to take food and surviving on the occasional sip of tea and the fluids being dripped into her veins. Such was the extent of her emaciation that her skin appeared to have been wrapped like Clingfilm around every curve and contour of her bones.
Mary's husband used to visit her every day at 2.15pm precisely. He was a dapper little chap; always in a tweed jacket and tie, and carrying fresh flowers. He would give her a gentle
kiss on the cheek then sit down in an armchair next to the bed. A few words might pass between them, perhaps some small happening from events back at home. However, for most of the time they would remain quiet; content in that easy silence that comes of many long marriages. Often, Mary would sleep. For his part, her husband remained vigilant, quietly stroking her bony hand; reassuring her by his continued presence. Then at 5pm, he would rise, give her another kiss, move the odd wisp of hair from her face, give her hand a final two-handed squeeze, pick up his cap and leave. Mary would follow him with her eyes until he disappeared from view. All of this I would observe from the distance of the ward office.
One day, in the cruel way that fate often works, Mary's husband suffered a major stroke, which left him paralysed and unable to speak. As a result, he was admitted to another ward within the same hospital. Both being too ill to move, the only contact between them was Mary's daily enquiry after her husband. Then, at 8am one weekday, the telephone call came through to the ward to inform us that Mary's husband had died in his sleep during the early hours of that morning. The ward Sister broke the news to Mary, who listened carefully but showed little in the way of emotion.
Just after lunch, my pager summoned me back to the ward and I was asked to see Mary. I knew at once that she had passed away. I stood there, quietly pensive, noting the hand stretched out towards the empty chair beside her. As the nurses averted their red-rimmed eyes, I knew that I was not the only one to be moved by her death. For many months, Mary had survived against all odds, taking strength from the power of her husband's love and her love for him. Then, within a few hours of being informed of his death, she had simply stopped living.
I still wonder at how the power of love fuelled Mary's resilience. The story of L/Cpl Tasker and his dog Theo reminded me of this story, and of how love for another being is sometimes stronger than any medicine.
First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Friday 25th March 2011