By Lynn Webster, MD, Guest Columnist
Some religions call their holiest people saints. In secular speak, a saint is a person who is pure, honest, and beyond reproach, and who mostly devotes their life to benefit others. In our more common vernacular, we use the word “heroes” to describe those who sacrifice themselves for the good of others.
I have decided that my grandfather was either a saint or a hero. That epiphany came to me recently, long after he passed.
My grandmother had multiple sclerosis. She was in constant pain. Sometimes, her pain was severe enough that she would scream that she wished to die. Grandma could not move from one position to another while she was sitting in a chair without assistance.
From the time I remember, she sat frozen with her knees at a right angle to her hips. Her 90-pound frame – which looked like a skeleton – had to be carried from the living room chair to the toilet to the kitchen table to the bed.
Then, when she was in bed, she had to lie on her side. That was because her legs had developed permanent contractures, preventing her from resting in any other position.
During the eighteen years of my childhood and youth, my grandfather rarely left my grandmother’s side except to work in the fields (we lived on a farm). I never recall my grandfather speaking negatively to her or expressing anger at her dependence. Nor, in my memory, did he ever ask anyone else in the family to help care for her.
Today, we would call my grandfather a “caregiver,” but that sounds inadequate to me. That level of generosity requires a higher level of attribution: saint or hero. Take your pick.
People with acute pain receive flowers, calls, and visits. That pain, everyone knows, will eventually pass. The inconvenience, too, will end.
But when the pain becomes chronic, those loving tributes and the connections soon fade. That leaves the person with pain isolated. Family and friends drift away because their own schedules make demands or because they don’t know how to make a meaningful contribution.
The caregiver often shares this isolation. It is the daily responsibility that separates the caregiver from others who care about the ill person. The others may sincerely care, but they are not in the foxhole.
Who is a caregiver?
The caregiver is most often an adult child, parent, or spouse. They face innumerable challenges. They deprive themselves of a normal schedule. They forgo pleasures and delegate other responsibilities so they can be there for the one in need. They do this out of love, a sense of duty, or both.
The role of giving care to a person with chronic pain is not a sprint but a marathon. People who have chronic pain may live for years, and so goes the role of the caregiver.
Responsibilities are never-ending. The duties include nursing, banking, cooking, housecleaning, bill paying, and all other activities required to exist in society.
Every day in my practice, as I saw patients with chronic pain, I would also see caregivers. I was always in awe of their spirit and generosity. They, along with my grandfather, are heroes in our society.
We can call them heroes, or we can refer to them as saints. I am not sure I can tell the difference between the two. To me, my grandfather was both.
Lynn R. Webster, MD, is past President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, Vice President of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences, and the author of “The Painful Truth.”
This column is republished with permission from Dr. Webster’s blog.
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.