Way back in October of 2008 Karen over at COPDnewsoftheday.com asked me to write a post for her blog about the relationship between RTs and COPD patients in honor of RT Care week. I was honored by her request, and thought instantly of Mrs. Flowers.
The following was first published October 2008 at COPDNewsoftheday.com:
by Rick Frea: October 21, 2008 @ COPDNewsoftheday.com
I was told in report that Mrs. Flower in room 202 was diagnosed with COPD and was having a very difficult go of it. She was only 60. The person who gave me report was concerned that she might be ventilator bait.
So I wasn’t surprised when I was paged STAT to Mrs. Flower’s room early in my shift.
Upon entering her room I immediately observed she was in agonizing respiratory distress. She was gasping like a fish out of water as she sat on the edge of the bed leaning on the table to breathe. Next to her on the bed was an Afghan she had apparently been working on.
“I feel so miserable,” she said, “I… can’t breathe.”
“I know what you’re going through,” I said as I mixed up a breathing treatment.
“NO YOU DON’T!” the patient said.
“Oh yes he does,” someone said from behind me. I turned and saw that it was Tes, a nurse who took care of me back when I was having bad asthma several years earlier. “He has asthma. He KNOWS what you are going through.”
Mrs. Flower looked up at me and managed half a smile, which disappeared in a heartbeat as she concentrated on her breathing. Yet she seemed to mellow at the thought there was a fellow chronic lunger in the room.
With the permission of the doctor, I gave her two breathing treatments. Suddenly, she was breathing normal again — well, normal for her anyway.
Mrs. Flower became one of my favorite all time patients. When she was feeling better — and even when she wasn’t –she’d always be working on an Afghan. When I entered the room she’d stop and take her treatment, and we’d talk.
There were nights I would talk to her for hours not just about COPD and asthma and breathing, but about other things as well. I eventually got to know many of her family members, and she even got to know mine through my descriptions and pictures, as I got to know about her past through her stories and pictures.
Through my 11 years as an RT, there have been many Mrs. Flowers’. Each time I get to know about their entire lives in a few short minutes while I’m helping them breathe better with a bronchodilator breathing treatment.
After she was in the hospital several days, I said, “Well, I’m going to be off the next few days. I’m sure you’ll be home before I get back. So, I hope the next time I see you is in a grocery store.”
She laughed and said, “Absolutely.”
But she came back. At first her return visits were infrequent, maybe once a year. She’d joke and say, “I’m just in for my yearly recharge.”
I think it was about her third visit that I found out she was still smoking, so I discussed with her — as a friend more so than an RT — how much I wanted her to never smoke again.
I explained to her that if she stopped smoking now she won’t be able to undo the damage to her lungs, but it won’t get any worse. She might even improve the quality of her life, and decrease her hospital stays.
She smiled cheek to cheek and promised me she would never smoke again.
Three weeks later she came back for another visit. I didn’t ask her if she was still smoking because I trusted what she told me before. And she went home after a few weeks with our same old good-bye lines.
But eventually she was visiting me more often, and then it got to the point that I said to her, “You might as well move in your dresser you’re here so often.”
She smiled. Even though she was getting sicker, she was still the same pleasant person to talk with, and she continued to work on her afghans.
She went home again. Two days later I finally saw her at a grocery store. Only she was not shopping. She was sitting in her van — smoking.
My heart sank. Of all the things I have seen as an RT, that one moment for me was perhaps among the most disappointing. Here I thought Mrs. Flower was making a gallant effort, and all along she kept right on smoking. No wonder her COPD kept getting worse.
It was kind of a defeatist feeling. I thought I have all this knowledge in my mind that I enjoy sharing, and for a long time after that I couldn’t get myself to share any of it. I thought, “What’s the point.”
Two days after I saw her in the parking lot she was a patient again. This time she was very sick.
She looked defeated. The disease was winning, and she knew it. She was having trouble breathing even while she lay there in her bed. Yet, she still smiled as I entered her room, and stopped whittling long enough to take her treatment and talk.
Out of respect for her, I never said a thing about seeing her smoke. I decided if anything she needs to have her dignity. And I remember when I was a kid trying to stop my grandpa from smoking, and he’d always say, “I’d rather die young doing something I love than to live a long miserable life not doing what I enjoy.”
I thought grandpa died young when he was 70. But he was making a list of things to do when he died, a sign to me that he went out happy.
I thought grandpa’s words rang true here. By smoking, Mrs. Flower was doing something she truly loved to do. I respected that. Yes she was destroying her lungs, but I understood. I didn’t like it, but I respected her.
“You know,” she said one day, “I hope your kids never smoke. It sounds like a cool idea when you are young and think you’re going to live forever, but it catches up to you eventually.”
“When you started smoking,” I reassured her, “The knowledge wasn’t out there. Now-a-days if a kid starts smoking, there is no excuse for it because the education is out there.”
About a year later, after several frequent visits, I learned from reading the paper that she had passed. It was sad, but so is life when you work in the hospital. Yet she no longer had to fight, and she passed the way she wanted: in her own home.
A few days later I was paged to the lobby. “There’s a man here to see you,” the front desk clerk said.
“Who would want to see me?” I thought as I set down the receiver.
In the lobby was Mr. Flower. He held in his hand an Afghan I watched Mrs. Flower make. He said, “This is for you. She finished it just before she passed away, and she wanted you to have it.”
Now I think of Mrs. Flower each and every time I snuggle up in that afghan.
Still, I wonder how many more lives she would have touched with her stories, or how many more afghans she would have made and given away as gifts if she had a few more years to live.