Archive for the ‘Illness’ Category

The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overpower it. – John 1:5

The longer I live the more I realize our lives are cyclical.  Hills and valleys are the norm, most of us do not live on the plains.  My entire life has been spent living in places between Illinois, Tennessee and Ohio that had rolling hills.  I’ve visited places like Kearney, Nebraska, right in the center of the state and very close to the center of the USA, and seen the vast difference.  You can see for mile in Kearney, not simply because of the totally flat land but also because of the lack of a significant amount of trees.  It takes the contrast of understanding the alternative to truly appreciate the difference.  I recall being told the story when visiting a plant in Kearney of how the facility had been closed one January day because no one could get in the building because of the one inch snowfall they had had overnight.  You see because of that lack of trees or contour in the land, the wind had blown the one inch of snow from miles around and it had hit the one obstacle it could find on that prairie, the building, and covered the building to fifteen feet deep in snow, licking up over the roof.  I’ve seen much smaller versions of that when I lived in Illinois, but it was counteracted by snow fences erected along farm fields to keep the snow from blowing too far before it hit something.  The hills and valleys may add more difficulty in movement or other things but they also provide protection, which allows more trees to grow, which adds to the protection from billowing snow, for example.  I was talking to someone at a whitewater rafting company this week and asking about the scattered thunderstorms forecast for the week of our upcoming vacation and how that would impact our ability to get on the river.  She said that we’re going to be wet anyway, so they raft rain or shine, but if it does get severe enough, they pull out for fifteen minutes as the storms come over the mountains and then break up pretty fast, yet another example of the barrier providing some protection.

In another contract we have light and dark.  Have you ever been outside the city, say in someplace like Kearney, Nebraska, and been able to see the difference it makes in the night sky?   You can see so much more.  It is not the darkness that is the barrier in the big city, it is the light.  The light near us overtakes the light coming at us from out in space.  Get in a dark space however, and the light of the stars blast through.  Moving from physical light, to spiritual light, we see that God has designed the same process.  This is where more life experience and more cycles gives you a greater perspective.  Someone younger may not have much opportunity to travel and so may never see the difference from where they live.  Similarly, having been around for many decades, I’ve had some pretty dark times in my life.  It seems the darker the time the more glorious the light.  When we are downtrodden and feeling hopeless, it is then we can truly begin to understand God’s power to breakthrough and aid us.  That aid may be comfort, it may be peace, it may be new, unexpected circumstances.

Regardless of the level of darkness, it is never strong enough to stop the light.  Have you ever been in a cave?  There is no deeper physical darkness you will ever experience on earth than in a cave.  Most cave tours have you experience this at some point when they turn out all the light.   One of the best experiences I’ve ever had of this was in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.  While the tour group is in the darkness, one of the guides has circled back and turns on a small light, which pierces the blackness.  As the guide with you continues to talk about the lack of light and that impact, the other guide spends those minutes walking to you.  The light never really gets bigger or any brighter, but you can see it jiggling ever so slightly as the guide walks and when they finally arrive in about five minutes the guide shares with you that that guide just walked half a mile to get to us.  That pin prick of light from a tiny handheld penlight broke through the utter darkness for half a mile and was visible by us. The darkness could not overpower it.

I have been through divorce, death of friends and family members, loss of jobs, alienation from family members, struggles with children.  Without the hope of light, I am certain the outcome would have been terrible.  I’ve seen people struggle with depression and fear.  Going back to the cave, every time I experience some flavor of the example I shared above, my thoughts go back to the early explorers, those who only had candles or oil lamps and did not have things like cell phones or battery powered flashlights that can provide a steadier, more reliable source of light.  When they got lost in the cave and their light source gave out, how would they feel?  After the initial fear, what would they do?  The longing for the light in all of us is strong.  Even for those few minutes, even though we know this is temporary and controlled, either in the cave or when they lock you in a solitary cell in Alcatraz, you still feel a bit of panic: What if something goes wrong and the light does not return?  When the storms of life surround us, and we know we are not in control, that darkness can be overbearing.

This is the brilliance of the interplay of light and dark that God has designed into the universe He created.  Whether it be physical or spiritual, even a tiny amount of light will not be overpowered by darkness.  If you find yourself in a dark place, look for the light.  Pray for God to show you the light.  God’s grace will always shine through for those who believe.  Keep that truth in your heart and no matter your circumstances, whether it be illness, deprivation, injustice or some other dark time in your life, you will find your way to the peace and comfort that God has in store for all of us.

Psalm 30:5b – Weeping may last for a night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning.

I once heard it said that as you get older, you obtain more wisdom and a lot of that wisdom helps you to understand that the wisdom you had when you were younger was not actually real wisdom at all but our own human arrogance pretending to be wisdom when we really are not so wise.

Many of those lessons, or opportunities to learn wisdom, come at times when we realize we are not in control.  Earlier this month I had one of those lessons in the form of a physical problem that took me by surprise.  I ended up having what I later learned was a gallbladder attack a couple times this month.  The first time it hit me I thought I had strained my back from using our snowblower and thought my abdominal pain was just a reaction to some cream sauce we had for dinner.  It hit me around bed time and as the night wore on and I could not sleep or even sit still, I began to panic.  Thoughts started going through my head about if I could continue to endure the excoriating pain or if I’d go crazy.  There were moments when I seriously thought that I understood why some people with chronic pain must get to the point when they just want to die and have it stop.  This was my first growth of wisdom.  Sure I had this pain for going on two hours at this point, but it certainly was not days, weeks or months of pain.  It was amazing to me how quickly, I, someone who I felt handled stress and challenges well was able to be turned into a whimpering ball of goo nearly at the point of wishing for anything to happen as long as the pain went away.  It literally got to the point where I was rocking back and forth on the floor in tears praying that something, anything would make it stop.

The next day as I explained my ordeal through the night to my wife and later my father, both of them urged me to go to the doctor.  As the strong masculine type I of course made up every reason in the world not to go.  I have no idea how to tell them what was happening.  It never happened before and it might never happen again so I will just wait and see.  This was my human arrogance showing through the wisdom that I had that what had occurred to me was not normal and therefore should be examined closer.  I had gone through agony in the night, only to jump for joy in the morning and feel it was handled.

Three days later, God gave me another chance as the same agony hit me right after midnight and woke me up.  In the conversations I had the other day it was suggested it might be gallbladder related to I turned to the source of all knowledge.  No not the Bible.  Wikipedia and WebMD.  Once again, human arrogance but to be fair I do not recall any verses in the Bible that tell you how to diagnose gallbladder pain.  Once again after two hours or so I was at my wits end.  This time the pain was not really worse, but I was getting nauseous along with it and it was only two in the morning.  I called our nurse help line to see if they thought I should head in to the ER or just stick it out until morning.  I had no notion of not having it checked out, I just wanted to know if my doctor or urgent care would be good enough rather than heading out to a hospital in the middle of the night.  As I talked on the phone the nice nurse eventually used her womanly wisdom to push through my manly hard-headedness and told me to wake up my wife and let her know I was heading to the ER.  Once there they went through the processes needed to find that in fact I had a gall stone blocking the duct and that would account for my pain.  By 7 AM my pain subsided but I was now admitted to the hospital.

For me this was its own brand of horror.  Up to this point I had survived on this Earth without even a personal visit to the ER, let alone being admitted and facing the prospect of surgery. My blood pressure was through the roof as we waited for the surgeon to arrive and talk with us.  I played along pretty well and even had myself fooled that I was doing OK, but every time the nurse came in and took my blood pressure the truth was right there in digital red numbers.  The surgeon eventually arrived and while I pushed back a bit on if the surgery was really necessary, he convinced me (my wife helped just a little) to get this done before it really got worse.  I had the doctor’s wisdom, my wife’s wisdom and my lack of wisdom in this regard.  I also had the benefit of more wisdom from one of my friends who works in the medical field, who put it very simply.  “There are only two things you need to know to make this decision,” he said.  “First, you do not need a gallbladder to live.  Second, yours is not working right.”  I’m a logical guy, so this straight line logic made a lot of sense to me.  It took the emotion right out of it.  Never mind the fear I was feeling, the thoughts of never waking up from the anesthesia or having the doctor leave a bedpan in my abdomen during surgery, my friend just laid it right out.  Isn’t it wonderful how if you follow God’s wisdom of surrounding yourself with godly counsel that He will make sure you hear what you need?  We decided to go ahead and the surgery was scheduled for the next afternoon.

My wife sat with me through the evening and eventually left to be home with the kids around nine.  It was then that I became aware of my reality and it really brought me to my knees.  I was going to be in a hospital overnight for the first time in my life and it scared me to death and there was nothing I could do about it.  Sure I could say I wanted to wait for the surgery.  The surgeon had said that he could discharge me and we could do it a few days later when it was more convenient, even gave me the option to do that right until the last minute.  He had also made clear that these stones were not going anywhere so doing that would just postpone the inevitable.  That little sucker had to come out sooner or later and God would leave it up to me.  There in that hospital bed in the dark after my wife had left I had never felt so alone in my life.  I had moved away from family and friends to a strange city and not felt this alone. I had moved again to another strange city leaving the friends I had made again and then gotten divorced and had not felt this alone.  In each of those situations at the time I had turned to God to help provide me strength and I felt He had taken me to the breaking point, but here in this hospital room He had taken me to the depths of despair again and shown me that no, it could be lower.  His timing had brought me here that night and even so I could have made a choice to delay but I trusted God and knew if this was what was to happen that He would work it for good.  Even if something terrible happened I had faith that this was part of His plan.  As I sat there weeping in the night I turned to God and said your will be done.

Now I am several weeks out and His glory continues to be revealed in ways seen and unseen.  We learned from the surgeon after the fact that it was worse than he thought when he had given us the option to wait and he informed us it was good we went in when we did.  It may have escalated to something much more serious in a few days had I waited.   I was given an opportunity to share my faith just before heading into surgery with the nurse’s taking care of me and it may have moved someone in God’s direction.  The first part of that verse talks about God’s anger and favor.  Do I feel that I had an issue with my gallbladder because God was angry with me?  No.  But the wisdom I gained that helps me understand that verse more clearly is that if we trust in God we are always in a good place.  His anger lasts for a moment, the verse says, but His favor is for a lifetime.  Those three nights this month had me weeping, but the rest of the days were filled with God’s opportunity and blessing.  I found wonderful support in my church family, something I have never had in any church I have ever attended.  I was shown that I can go through surgery, have an unexpected outcome and make it through, which will give me wisdom to face the bigger health challenges I sadly will most likely have as I age.  I was worried about the medical bills from this event and was surprised to find I have received the largest bonus of my career.  All I could do at that time was look inside in shame and weep. My doubt was answered by the wisdom I had neglected to recall.  God provides.  Once again He shows that ours is not to worry, just as he sustained Israel in the desert after their escape from Egypt when they thought they would surely die, He takes care of His children now.  There are still other challenges hanging over us that have not resolved but in passing through my ordeal with a tiny “useless” organ known as the gallbladder God has given me another lesson to grow my wisdom.  When I am in doubt I need to trust in Him for in everything that happens, “this is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” Ps. 118:23

The worst disease I know

Posted: March 2, 2012 in Illness

(Benton Blount)

Do you recall the time that I got my first car
We took the top down and we drove around town until it got dark
All those summer nights, we had nothing else to do
So we just sat on that old porch swing, and I starred at you
If I could do it all again, I’d take a picture of those days
So I wouldn’t have to say
Do you remember our first kiss, the birthday party that I missed
Can we go back to the time, when I was yours and you were mine
Through all those failing memories, is there just one you can say to me
You know I’ll wait here forever
Till you remember
Forty years older now and oh how things have changed
When you wake up in the morning, you don’t even know my name
It gets a little harder, each and every time
To push all those memories back inside your mind
But when I feel like giving up, I see you smile at me
I guess this is how it was meant to be
Do you remember sixty-eight when we went out on our first date
Then in 1972, that’s when you said I do
Those three children that we have
You know you always made them laugh
And you know we will always be here
So when our time on earth is through and we’re standing there with you
You will remember

I spent a few years down in the Nashville area and personally knew the artist whose lyrics are quoted above.  I never got to talk with him specifically about this song but it is one of the only songs I have come across that addresses the hurt and pain of a loved one who is caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia.

I have had the experience to this point of knowing three people as they went through this horrible process.  I certainly cannot comment on what it feels like to go through it as the one with the disease, but I certainly can share what it feels like to see someone you love and care about go through it.  I have had several relatives succumb to cancer and battle that for a time, but in my experience, the slow deterioration of a loved one to Alzheimer’s is the worst disease imaginable.  Cancer has made significant improvements in treatments, and there is something that can be done that has a hope of halting or reversing the trend.   In one case I am aware of recently a breast tumor is no longer able to be found after ten weeks of chemotherapy.  Will this woman live a long and cancer-free life?  Only God knows.  But she and her family have hope and joy.  I have never experienced that with Alzheimer’s.  It is just sadness and varying degrees of other negative emotions.

The three people are my paternal grandfather, my maternal grandmother and my fiancée’s father.  The last two people are still struggling with the process today.  My grandfather went through it when I was in middle, high school and college and he was in that state for years.  Since this is the story with the only full cycle I have to this point known, I will start there.

My grandfather was always a quiet individual.  His wife was the dominant one in the relationship and even as a small child I can recall gatherings with them either at their home, which we visited at least every other weekend as I grew up, or holiday events with more people around.  My grandfather did not say much and I believe he was retired by the time I came around.  Whenever he would talk on a subject, often my grandmother would cut him off, correct him and take over the conversation.  Most visits were spent with him just sitting in the easy chair not saying much.  In dementia research I looked into heavily at the time he was experiencing his bout, I felt this lack of mental exercise and use of his faculties contributed greatly to his decline. 

I do not recall exactly how long his process took but I believe it was between 5-10 years.  My mother would go to help my uncle and grandmother take care of him for a long time.  The frequent visits declined as our parents tried to shield us (my brother was many years younger than me) from the situation, but I do know for many years he was at a very advanced stage and it was awful for everyone around.

Do any research and you will find very quickly that this disease is much harder on the caregivers than it is on the person with the ailment.  I saw this played out in my family in graphic detail.  My grandfather would curse out anyone and everyone who came in contact with him, including myself.  He of course reserved his most vicious attacks for his loving wife.  I watched my grandmother move from vibrant and happy grandmother to a frail and dejected woman very quickly.  My grandfather would kick her, beat her and she would have bruises from trying to get him into the tub.  He had no idea who anyone was for a long period of years and this wore to no end on my grandmother.  In turn my uncle was watching his mother slip away.  I would hear my mother talk about how every time she went to help my grandmother was in tears almost constantly as it was unbearable to handle the situation.  She was a small woman as it was, and she was getting smaller from the toil it was taking.  I recall one visit about a year before he died when we were sitting at the dining room table and my grandmother was again racked by uncontrollable sobs.  She finally removed her head from her hands and said, “I feel terrible for feeling this way about my husband, but I wish he would die.  This is just too difficult to bear.”  It was so obvious how it was tearing her up inside to feel this way, yet the impact to her physical, mental and emotional health was enormous.  She was not medically diagnosable with anything, but looking at her and talking to her, she appeared on death’s door more than my grandfather did.  I will never forget those times and it haunts me to this day. 

For me, in a discussion I will get into in my next post, I was not involved much in this process.  I heard about a lot of it from my mother who spent her time there while my father went to work, and would fill him in the evenings.  As I was in a much stupider state during those times being a high schooler and trying to form my own life, I distanced myself from the events, but when I did go the impact was heavy.  I had already talked about my grandmother.  I was doing the typical macho man thing of suppressing my emotions as the world and my family had taught me to do, but one visit it just broke.  I was sitting in their house as we regularly did, and as everyone else talked I decided to try to speak with my grandfather.  I had always greeted him when I came in and said goodbye and hugged and kissed him when we left.  We were an Eastern Bloc family from Poland, this was drilled into me from the time of being an infant.  Emotions were not something I remember a lot of growing up as everything was private and secret and kids were not meant to know all the travails of the family.  Perhaps this was what made this moment hit me like a ton of bricks.  Even though I “knew” the state of my grandfather since I was in my 20s when he passed away it was not until that one visit that for some reason it really dawned on me that he was never going to remember who I was and the time we spent together and everything else.  To him I was just someone sitting there who had no more importance to him than someone he had never met.  I just broke down in racking sobs.

My grandmother lived another ten years after he died but she never was healthy again.  The care taking had taken its toll.  That experience has made me pray regularly that when my time comes to die I spare my family the impact of this process.  I have not heard anyone ever say that they were grateful for those extra years when he was in the grips of Alzheimer’s.  The only comment was that of my grandmother years into it just wishing he would die.  I never want to create that burden in my family and I pray the Lord will listen.  My other grandfather died when I was 12, in his sleep from a heart attack.  Our family grieved.  That was the impact of his death.  His wife is the grandmother who is now seeming to enter dementia but she remained healthy and vibrant for three decades after his passing.  The contrast between the family impact of Alzheimer’s compared to cancer, heart attack or other causes of death and care taking to my family was so vastly different.

I can now see the impact again as my grandmother lives with my parents and I get calls from my father of the situation and how they are quickly getting to a point of not being able to cope with it.  I try to help give the advice he asks for, but I again feel sad and helpless.  My dad says my mom is at her wits end, and they have only begun compared to my grandfather.  The sad hope we have is that my grandmother is already older than my grandfather was when he finally died after years of dementia, so perhaps the journey will not be as long.  With my fiancée’s father I never had the opportunity to know him before his current state so I personally do now know how different he is at this point.  In both cases I pray the situation does not become anything like what my grandfather went through and took his family through.

In the end that is the hopelessness of this disease.  There are currently no medications, no real treatments that substantially slow the progression, nothing to do but watch the changes and draw on strength that may or may not be there.  I have heard there is some promising research that the disease shows flu like tendencies so they may be able to attack it with a similar type of process.  From what a friend of mine has read of that research he feels we may see a substantial change in Alzheimer’s treatment in the next decade that may even lead to a way to stop the spread entirely once it is identified with brain scans and treated with the processes being researched, but that does not help the loved ones who are now in the throes of this disease.