I always experience a moment of anxiety before entering a new home. When I first started out in Emergency Medical Services, I attributed this to a lack of experience. However, years later, I would still experience it. There was no way to tell from the outside what condition was contained within; both of the home and of the person who was about to become my patient. All of my life — and despite the fact that I am myself not the most tidy person in the world — I’ve had a strange aversion to a messy home. And I knew that if the home was especially disgusting — bits of food all over the floor, old newspapers stacked knee high, the faint but distinguishable odor of urine — that I would have a difficult time focusing on his chest pain, her stomach ache, and so on.
But on this particular day, a rainy and cold fall day common in Iowa, I had none of those concerns. We were on our way to see one of our most frequent of flyers, who for privacy reasons I will call Edna.
Edna was an elderly woman who lived in a two-story home on a tree-lined street just off the main road with a man we believed was her son. Upon entering, you were faced with stairs leading to the several bedrooms. I would tell you more about the house, but I never saw it. Edna would always be found in the bedroom to the right at the top of the stairs. If her son was home, he would meet us at the door, offering a “She’s upstairs,” with all the practiced obligation of a doorman who feels this position is beneath him… And often with the same amount of enthusiasm.
One day, he wasn’t there when we knocked on the door, so we let ourselves in and proceeded to the upstairs bedroom. Even though I had yet to speak a word to her, I knew how this would go. Edna would report a vague complaint of pain and I would pretend to care. Then, after essentially making small talk for about 20-30 minutes, she would decide she didn’t need to go to the hospital, sign the refusal paperwork, and we would be on our way. Patients are not charged unless there is a transport, so no harm, no foul. If we were particularly busy or I was behind on paperwork – or just hungry – I would sometimes force the issue, but often it was enough to just sit with her for a while and occasionally offered a welcome reprieve from the goings on of the shift.
Upon entering the bedroom, I found Edna in her usual spot: laying in the bed which was positioned directly next to the door. Today Edna complained of the Swine Flu. She had heard on the news that 1 in every X number of people was currently afflicted with this latest pandemic and believed herself to be that one. It was the most ridiculous of her many complaints, so much so that I had to stifle a giggle when she told me. Perhaps it was her history with us, the fact that numbers were clearly in her favor, or the complete absence of any symptoms whatsoever, but I was less than convinced. But we weren’t in any particular rush, so I sat and chatted with her while my partner went through the motions of taking her blood pressure and pulse. After about 20 minutes, it was determined that she would make an appointment with her primary care physician at the local clinic. She signed the refusal paperwork — I didn’t even bother explaining to her what it said anymore — and we left.
As we drove away, my partner suggested — only partially in jest — that we should pool our money and get her dog so she would stop calling.
During my career with that department, I visited Edna so many times that I couldn’t even begin to count them. And yet during that time, I never once transported her to the hospital. Edna never called because she was actually sick… At least not in the way you’re thinking. The primary cause of Edna’s symptoms, the real illness with which she as afflicted, was loneliness. Her life now but a shell of what it once was, Edna simply needed to know that someone — even those of us who arrived in ambulances — still cared.
In the fall of 2013, I returned from a tour in Afghanistan. During that time I endured a break-up with a girl I truly love, a death in my family, and the stresses of combat that are inexplicable to those who have never experienced them. Not unlike Edna, my life looked nothing like I once remembered it. Like so many of us are prone to do, I retreated within myself. When people asked how the deployment had gone, I would often answer with something vague like, “It was Afghanistan, how do you think it was?” If they pressed for more information, I would say something flipped or find a way to change the subject. I didn’t want to talk about my ex-girlfriend or my deceased grandmother, much less the fact that when I was alone I couldn’t stop myself from crying and I didn’t know why. It was during that time that I understood Edna better than ever, as I convinced myself that there wasn’t anyone left in the world who actually cared. It wasn’t even slightly true, but those are the lies we tell ourselves.
Despite my best efforts to the contrary, my friends and family refused to give up. At every turn I was met with a willing ear and words of encouragement. There was the friend who encouraged me to see a therapist. There was my mother — God bless her — who kept reminding me that there were dozens of people who genuinely cared about me. There were my friends who would just sit, drink beer with me, and not say a word.
No one can do life alone. No matter how much we want to believe the opposite, we need each other. Because I thought no one could possibly understand what I was going through, I chose not to share it. What I failed to grasp at the time was that I didn’t need someone to understand, I just needed someone to listen. Like Edna, I needed to know that if I called, someone would show up.
So many of us try to go it alone. Society or our own neurosis has convinced us that admitting that you need someone is an admission of weakness. It’s simply not true. I hope that my willingness to care about Edna contributed in some small way to the longevity of her life. I know that the unrelenting support of my friends and family pulled me back from the metaphorical edge on more than one occasion. Be they public servants or longtime friends, the people that really make a difference show up when you call, because that’s what people do when they care about you.
The truly difficult part of feeling alone isn’t so much in the finding people who care as it finding the courage to call them. It is all too easy to fall victim to the vortex of negative thinking that has plagued each and every one of us at one point or another. There is a little bit of Edna in all of us, which means we all have a need to know that someone will show up when we call.
Admitting you need other people doesn’t make you weak. It just makes you human.