‘I really do not understand how that lady is still alive.’
It was August 1986 and we were sitting in the Sister’s office on the surgical ward of a small district hospital in Kent. I was a newly qualified doctor and this was my first hospital job. I was very proud to carry the title of “House Surgeon” as it represented a major step up from that of “medical student”. However, only two weeks into my six-month post, here I was learning the meaning of humility.
‘She refuses to die whilst her husband is still alive,’ the staff nurse replied.
My first meeting with Mary, as I shall call the lady who was the subject of our conversation, was shortly after my arrival on the ward. I had been called by the nurse to replace Mary’s intravenous line. In retrospect, I hope I managed to hide my feeling of total incredulity at the sight that greeted me.
Mary was an extremely frail lady in her mid sixties. She is the only patient I remember in detail, when I cast my mind back to the six months of working on that ward, as she was there throughout most of that time. Quiet, uncomplaining and undemanding, she held little in the way of conversation apart from requesting the daily report on her husband. Her resilience was impressive.
Mary had been diagnosed, some four months previously, with inoperable cancer of the ovary. An exploratory operation was an “open and shut” case, the surgeon having nothing in his armoury that could halt the relentless growth of the malignancy eating away inside her. Over the ensuing months she had become progressively weaker, being unable to take food and surviving on the occasional sip of tea and the fluids being slowly dripped into her veins. She lay motionless in her bed; a mere skeleton of a human being, her skin appearing to have been wrapped, like cling-film, around every individual curve and contour of her bones. Such was the extent of her
Mary’s husband initially visited her every day. However, in the cruel way that fate often works, he had suddenly suffered a stroke, which left him paralysed and unable to speak. As a result, he had been 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.
It was 10 o’clock one weekday morning when the telephone call came through to the Ward Sister’s office. Mary’s husband had died in his sleep during the early hours of the morning. I can remember that it was Sister who took on the task of gently breaking this news to Mary, who listened carefully but showed little in the way of emotion. She simply lay there, just as she had for the past six months or so, moving nothing but her wistful-looking eyes.
At 1 p.m. my pager summoned me back to the ward and I was asked to see Mary. A sense of calmness seemed to have descended on her. I knew at once that she, too, had passed away. I stood there, quietly pensive, noting, as the nurses averted their red rimmed eyes, that I was not the only one to be moved by the death of this remarkable lady.
Mary had affected us all. For many month she had survived against all odds, taking strength from the power of her husband’s love and her love for him. Then, within three hours of being informed of his death, she too had simply stopped living.
‘Never underestimate the power of the human spirit,’ said a nurse.
Those words have since come back to me on many occasions. Twenty years ago I marvelled at how the power of love fuelled Mary’s resilience. I still wonder at it and I have become humbler with every reminder.
The Power of Love was first published in an abridged version in the BMS News, Saturday 10th March 2007.
Patient names have been changed to avoid identification.
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