My brother is a quadriplegic. He’s lost all feeling in his feet. He has to look to see where they are. If he tries to walk, he falls. His right hand is useless, though he has some residual feeling in his left. He’s very protective of that, careful not to injure it in any way. The other day he told me he’s trying to learn to eat with his left hand.
If there’s a term for losing feeling in three of the extremities rather than four, I haven’t found it. The doctors have settled on “quadriplegic.” When my brother first heard the word, he was shocked. It didn’t fit his situation at all. He had numbness in his extremities, a burning in his hands. That does not equal quadriplegia, he argued. The doctor only looked at him.
Well, put any name on it you want, my brother said. I’ll prove you’re wrong. I’ll beat this thing.
What has happened to Bob is not the result of a terrible accident or a fall or a wound of some kind. It began when he was in his mid-fifties, and it came on slowly. At first it was more an irritation than anything else – the numbness, the burning, the pain. His right hand was the worst. He took to wearing a glove, and for a time it helped. But it progressed.
My brother has been, at various times in his 70 years, a farmer, mechanic, welder, soldier, fisherman, shrimper, maker of crab traps, and other things. When he was in his twenties he had a milk route. At six foot four and weighing over 200 pounds, he could lift two cans of milk, one in each hand. The cans contained 10 gallons of milk. They weighed between 80 and 85 pounds each. My brother drove to the dairy farms on his route, pulled the cans up out of the cooler, loaded them onto the truck, drove to the milk plant, unloaded them, took the empty cans off the scrubber, and hauled them them back to the farmer.
Years of that kind of lifting have taken a toll.
Doctors, in my experience, like to be helpful. They’ve gone into the medical profession because they want to alleviate suffering. They do the best they can for their patients. Like all of us, they want positive results.
Sometimes their best efforts fail. When they have a patient they cannot help, and that patient comes back again and again, and it’s clear they can do no more, they get discouraged. It’s a natural thing.
That quadriplegic out there again? What does he expect me to do? His back is shot. He’s been cut on so many times you can’t get through the scar tissue. There’s nothing I can do to help him. Send me a patient who has problems that are fixable. His are not fixable.
My brother’s problems are not fixable. Much as I hate to admit it, I’m afraid it’s true.
In my brother’s case, the doctors, with the best of intentions, have done more harm than good. None of the multiple surgeries has made his situation any better. Some have made it worse. Yet when Bob finds some new doctor who says he can help, he’s found the source of the problem, my brother’s hopes soar.
The surgery done, there is no improvement, his hopes and his yearnings give way to an acceptance of either status quo or a step backwards.
The steroids they prescribe for the pain – he is in excruciating pain – have caused him to become diabetic. It’s called steroid-induced diabetes. If he could get off the steroids, the diabetes might go away. But he can’t. The doctors have nothing to offer him, other than pain medicine: loricet, hydrocodone, vicodin. And steroids.
My brother’s last surgery was almost a drive-by. He was admitted to the hospital at noon on a Monday, and discharged less than 24 hours later. During that time they cut a hole in his throat, went through to the spine, took a look, and closed.
Statistics are not on my brother’s side. Most spinal surgeries fail to accomplish their goals.
Sometimes I remind my brother what good genes we have. The Weltys are known for their longevity, I tell him. When John Thomas Scharf was writing the history of Western Maryland (two volume set, published in 1882), he used the John Welty family to attest to the “salubriousness” of the climate of the Taneytown District where they lived. “The aggregate ages (of seven members of the Welty family) amounted to six hundred and fifty-seven years, giving an average of ninety-four years to each member of the family, probably the most remarkable instance of longevity since the days of the patriarchs.”
If Scharf were writing today, he would see a very different family dynamic. The Welty genes have not protected my brother. He’s disabled. He’s diabetic. He’s had so many surgeries on his back he’s lost count. He is in constant, unrelenting, racking pain.
His doctor writes yet another prescription for yet another vial of prednisone, knowing it will make the diabetes worse, but knowing too that it just might make his life worth living, for yet another day, another week, month, year.
The body always wants to heal itself, I tell my brother. Ninety-five percent of illnesses cure themselves. If given half a chance, we get better on our own.
He likes to hear that. When he’s had a good day, he tells me what he’s been able to accomplish. With the aid of his walker, he made it from the house out to his shop. He wouldn’t dare try it without his walker. He drove to WalMart, got on one of their motorized wheelchairs, and did his grocery shopping.
When I called the other day, I knew he was in trouble. His pain meds weren’t working. He couldn’t take another until evening.
I wanted to find something positive to say to him, but I was tapped out.
You can always rely on my brother. After that moment of self pity, he was his usual confident self. “You can get used to anything,” he said. “I guess you can get used to hanging, if you hang long enough.”
My brother often says things that are shocking. But this was worrisome. They used to hang horse thieves in the west. You can find hanging trees in nearly every state. Saddam Hussein was hung at Camp Justice, an Iraqi army base, three years ago. His neck snapped when he dropped through the trap door. He was lucky. It doesn’t always happen that way.
When we were children, there was a climbing tree in our back yard. If you climbed too high, higher than you’d ever climbed before, there came a moment when you realized how far away was the ground. You had a moment of panic. You hung onto that tree, terrified. Then, if you were like my brother, you summoned the courage to begin to inch your way down.
What I think he meant was that he would survive. Within him is the courage to persevere, to keep trying, to bear what has to be borne, and to go on. Had John Thomas Scharf dug deeper, he might have encountered those features in the Welty clan.