One of the most meaningful and enjoyable parts of my job, working as a physician in the Emergency Department at Harrison Medical Center, is caring for the many veterans and their families who live in and around Kitsap County. When I notice a married couple together in the examination room who appear to be old “enough,” I often will ask how long they’ve been together. Often the answer falls well above that magical 50-year mark. Then I’ll ask how they met. I love to see the look on their faces as their eyes meet, looking toward each other. “Oh, there was this USO dance down at the shipyard,” or “He was so handsome in his uniform... And she was a real looker!”
Sometimes, though, the answer surprises me.
On Tuesday, I cared for a 72-year-old woman, coughing and short of breath. She happens to be a yoga instructor for the senior ladies in her trailer park community center. She also prepares meals for neighbors who are alone or in need. And she loves to swing dance at the Elks club to live music on Fridays nights. I know these things because they were told to me by the beaming, handsome silver- haired husband standing at her bedside.
I, of course, asked “How long have you been married?”
“Seven years next month.”
Both widowed, they met through their love of swing dancing—at the Elks club, where else?
Shaking his still-strong hand, I noticed a bolo tie held around his neck with a neatly trimmed bootlace. It bore a purple heart. I asked him to tell me about it.
He told me was a gunner on a landing craft that had been modified into a gun boat. His job was to provide cover for the underwater demolition teams that went in ahead of an invasion force, beginning to clear obstacles. He participated in many of the island assaults in the Pacific. At Iwo Jima only he and one other man, from Yakima, survived. He was wounded.
I told him it was an honor to be able to help him, caring for his wife.
On Wednesday morning, my day began with an ambulance carrying a 93-year-old man from a local nursing home, severely short of breath. He had had previous strokes and a heart attack. He and his family had decided that should he ever become this sick, he would never want to be on life-supporting machines.
His daughter was at his side shortly after his arrival. She, living on the other side of the water, had traveled to see her dad every weekend for the seven years following her mom’s death. We talked together of how difficult it was for her to know that it was the end, even though she had known it was coming for a long time. “The doctors told him that he had only six months to live. That was three years ago,” she told me.
Doctors. What do they know?
I asked her what he did when he had been a working man. She told me that he had had several jobs—managing a local auto shop and working with city buses are the ones that stand out to me. But the condition of his feet hindered his work.
I pulled back the sheets to reveal his disfigured, scarred feet.
“He was stationed on New Guinea during the war,” she told me. The wetness of the jungle in his boots had destroyed the skin. He had been a radio operator.
The nurses and I, however, still had much to offer him—a chance to die well, to alleviate his suffering. A student nurse was part of the team that day. I told her that she was about to provide the most poignant and important care that she could hope to do as a nurse. We covered him in warm blankets (there aren’t many good things about being in the hospital but warm blankets are certainly one of them) and wrapped them around his head like a hood. We administered medications to take away what doctors call “air-hunger,” that feeling of suffocation. His breathing slowed. He became more comfortable. Mostly we just got out of his way and let him do what it was time for him to do.
His daughter was with him for his last breaths. She hugged me and thanked me for helping him to pass away so comfortably.
I told her it was an honor to be able to care for her dad.
The next day, Thursday, a 90-year-old man arrived with shortness of breath, and racing, irregular beats of his heart. He was given oxygen, an IV was placed in his arm, blood work sent to the lab, and an EKG tracing was obtained. In relatively short order, my team and I determined that he was not having a heart attack, or dangerous electrical rhythm of his heart. He was, however, very anxious.
His daughter explained that as he aged, he had been having spells like this from time to time. And only recently had he shared to even his family the source of the symptoms upsetting him.
After landing on Utah Beach in Normandy at the end of World War II, his unit had been one that liberated a concentration camp. When they arrived, only children remained in the camp. An empty train was waiting nearby.
He cried. So did we.
Three days. Three genuine heroes.
It was a remarkable week.
Scott T. Ekin, MD, is employed by Westsound Emergency Physicians. He has cared for patients in Emergency Services at Harrison Medical Center since 1999.