Wednesday, 19 December 2007

On Being a Burden

"Doc, I just don't want to be a burden to my family." 

The patient was in his 80's and suffering from the usual mixture of heart disease, arthritis, prostate cancer, etc. He lives with his wife--both very proud, independent Yankees. Over the years, as I have served as his family physician, Tom (not his real name) has often expressed anxiety about growing old and being unable to care for himself. He is a nominal Christian with no firm faith in life after death, no hope in heaven or fear of hell--"A loving God could never send anyone to hell forever." 
As I listened to Tom talk, I thought to myself, "You are not a burden, but a blessing!" I tried to explain, but Tom replied, "I just sit around all day--I don't have the energy to do anything useful." How could I open a window to another perspective on his situation? 
This idea that the aged, the infirm, the disabled, the unborn could be a burden is so pernicious in our society. Tom is thoroughly convinced that as he becomes less and less productive, he becomes more and more ready for the rubbish pile. What effect could my few words have against such an onslaught from the Culture of Death? We all seem to judge our value by what we do, by our productivity. The notion that a person has inherent value as a human being has slipped away. We have become "human doings" rather than "human beings". 
Tom, "Do you have any children?"--I knew he had several children and grandchildren, but asked anyway. "What did you think about your newborn son, Samuel, when you first saw him?"  "Why, I thought he was the most wonderful thing I had ever laid eyes on!" replied Tom with enthusiasm.  Gently I asked, "That first day, could Samuel do anything useful?" Tom smiled and for an instant I think a window opened. I pray the Lord will hold that window open as the days and infirmity of age progresses. 
As Catholic physicians we've all heard someone say, "Doc, I just don't want to be a burden." What would you say? Have you found any useful ways to respond to this dark perspective on the life we have all been given?


Tiber Jumper said...

This is an interesting post.
I have found that even among the Christian,non-Catholic patients I cared for, the culture of death infiltrated. Life was only as good as its quality and often well meaning Christian people had ascribed to the health and wealth gospel, and therefore saw suffering as evil.
When a recent elderly relative of mine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at 79 years of age, his spouse said, "this wasn't supposed to happen"
Now as a Catholic, I try to gently offer them the idea of "offering it up", but it is so foreign a concept.
So I don't have a good answer for my Catholic physician brethren here, just a few thoughts.

sjb_can said...

I'm a 50 year old woman with hereditary advanced coronary artery disease. I was a very active, very social person until ten years ago and despite bypass surgery, stents, medication, my condition is deteriorating. I feel terrible that I can no longer pull my weight. I can't work and am often too exhausted to cook. So my husband has to do more, on top of working full time and doing his normal household tasks. We can't vacation. I am a burden. I don't know how to "offer this up." If I was older and had slowed down gradually, it would be different. Also, I could go on like this for twenty or thirty years because I have not had a heart attack. I'm fine with me having to adapt, but how about my husband, my children, my cost to society? I don't know how to think about this in a possitive light. Any suggestions?

Hanne said...

Have you found any further insight into this, or resolution to your worries? In the same boat, although 20 years younger than you.