In a corner of a room he shares with three other residents at the nursing home, a patient with a curious illness stares out the window at an empty bird-feeder.
He holds his arms in a curious, characteristic way -- elbows and wrists hyperflexed so that his hands are tucked under his chin, like a child in prayer.
Mr. Fletcher has been bedridden for years. He can’t talk, can only moan. He can’t move other than to blink or shift his gaze. The only sign of responsiveness is that his eyes will sometimes follow stimuli, either of voice or hand movement.
Although he cannot move, his sensations are still intact. This means that Mr. Fletcher can still feel pain like you or I, or have that annoying itch that he cannot scratch. And people like Mr. Fletcher have their reasoning fully intact. They can think, dream, hope and reflect upon their endless prison.
Mr. Fletcher has what is commonly referred to as “locked-in syndrome” -- the result, occasionally, of a rare form of stroke, happening viciously and suddenly, often striking down people in the prime of life after head trauma.
In Mr. Fletcher’s case, it happened more slowly. He has supranuclear palsy, a degenerative condition of the central nervous system that usually afflicts the very elderly, although Mr. Fletcher is only in his early 60s. It’s a cousin of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, an insidious condition with symptoms that might start as mild gait abnormalities or difficulty with eye movements and gradually develop over years.
Nobody knows what causes it, and treatments are essentially palliative: You really can’t do a thing for those who suffer from it other than to keep them comfortable.
Mr. Fletcher has been admitted for some rehabilitation as he transitions from the hospital, after a partial bowel obstruction, back to his home. A team of therapists, nurses and aides and, most importantly, his wife, is here to care for him. I suspect that his wife, the one with the least formal training, understands him best.
I’d like to tell you about her.
I am visiting another patient in Mr. Fletcher’s room when Mrs. Fletcher arrives and proceeds to wash him with a moistened towel.
Carefully and tenderly, she alternates between wiping and drying, turning him first one way, then another. Patiently, meticulously and ever so gently, she bathes him.
After she finishes with the bathing, she rubs her husband down with lotion, massaging it into his skin until it is supple. Then the shaving begins. She lathers his face and, with smooth, efficient strokes, manages to remove a three-day growth of stubble. You can see his eyes sparkle as she winds up her ministrations.
I try not to stare. It seems intrusive, to watch them together, intimate, in an interaction almost as private as making love.
She is caring for this man for all she is worth. Being with him, cleaning him, giving of herself to him and receiving at the most a blink or grunt in return.
Now that’s love. That’s commitment. In a time when people get divorced for the most superficial of reasons, it is a tremendous encouragement to see true love in action.
Mr. Fletcher is a handsome black man with beautiful ebony skin. His wife is Vietnamese. I imagine they met during the Vietnam War when he was a dashing GI and she was a scared young woman whose homeland was being split in two.
As I watch her bathe him, I reflect on what their early years together might have been like. Running on the beach, staying out till dawn, picnics, favorite restaurants and lots of dancing -- they look like a couple who used to dance a lot.
I read of a young guy over in France, barely in his 40s, who became locked-in after a stroke. He had been a magazine editor. With the patience of Job, he dictated a book by blinking to a scrivener.
He referred to himself as feeling like a captive in a diving bell. One can only imagine the terror and loneliness of being in this state. You’re completely dependent upon others for all your needs, though you cannot voice any of them. Too warm? Too cold? Too bad.
And the people who are there to help often treat you as someone who cannot understand, as if you’re in a coma.
I’ve seen only one other patient who was locked-in, and that was back in medical school. We were on “physical diagnosis” rounds. That’s where a group of sleepy-eyed doctors in training dutifully follow their chief resident all over the hospital looking for interesting cases.
We popped into this guy’s room. I can’t remember his name. For that matter, I don’t know if we were ever told. He was just the interesting case on the eighth floor. As we lined the bed, we were grilled by a supervising resident about the case before us. This drill, known as “pimping,” is endorsed as a useful, hands-on, didactic exercise -- and it may serve its purpose, but more commonly it devolves into brash showmanship at best and downright intellectual bullying at worst.
And we were pimped about the poor gentleman who was locked-in. He just lay there, hearing every word we spoke about him.
Not once did anyone address him directly or acknowledge that he was a person of any real worth. He was simply an exercise in learning, a specimen.
As I watch Mrs. Fletcher, I reflect on that experience. I am struck by the contrast between a devoted wife and a group of doctors-in-training making their cursory visit before moving on to the next interesting case.
She is so kind to him, devoted, caring. I suppose that is what the marriage vows mean when they speak of “in sickness and in health.” Here is tangible evidence of someone being faithful to that promise. I’m sure it is way more than she bargained for, but she dispatches her duties willingly, without resentment.
When you’re young, you take your health for granted. Slowly, it is taken away from even the strongest of us. That day, Mrs. Fletcher taught me volumes about the timelessness of love and the gift of health.
Steve Dudley is a family physician in Seattle.