Mr Henry Wallace (pseudonym) was a 70 year old gentleman who upon first impression I perceived to be a friendly, but world-weary man. He had a myriad of health conditions, of which he claimed his inability to walk to be the most important. We took his history, and in discovering he was a diabetic, was experiencing left foot drop, and loss of peripheral sensation, we began to suspect peripheral neuropathy. It was the ulcerated right toe however, that was the cause of his admission. Mr Wallace was responsive, eager to answer our questions, and after a while, it was quite apparent he was also eager to share. He stressed the frustration he felt at his inability to walk, which had developed some months ago. He was once an active man, and he was accepting of all his medical conditions, had no qualms managing them, but the debilitating aspect of his failing legs meant that he no longer felt independent. He lived in a building owned by a Church, and although he admitted he mostly stayed in his room, there were neighbours there that he was fond of. He had no wife, and no children. He mentioned no other positive social relationships. I could detect an undercurrent of sadness in his voice, and it soon became apparent that the source of such melancholy was his own history. It was during his response to one of our questions that he apologised and stated that he had a story he wished to tell us.
Many years ago, Mr Wallace was working for a big brand company. At the time of the story he had been an employee for 16 years. During this period, Mr Wallace’s father was residing in a nursing home, with the expectation that he was dying. It came then a day, which his father was not expected to live past, where his sister-in-law called the company for which is worked, requesting that Mr Wallace be excused of his duties in order to tend to his father. However the company’s response was that no such employee existed, and the phone call was over.
It was at this point in his story that Mr Wallace began to cry. I was already, in truth, fighting the urge to respond sympathetically. He cursed the company he worked for, the company who after 16 years of labour, were unable to acknowledge his existence, the company whose inefficiency or incompetence meant that he returned home from work that day to learn that he had lost his father. He shook his head as the tears rolled down his cheeks, regretting that he was not given the opportunity to say goodbye. “I hate them”, he said to us. “I will never use [the brand name] again”. We agreed. We responded in our own way, offering some form of comfort. But I believe the greatest comfort he took in our presence was the opportunity to talk, to tell his story. I suspected that it was not something that he came across often.
His second story was told in brief, yet it had an impact much greater than its length. It was not told to us by him, as we felt we had taken much of his time and thus we decided to leave him to rest. It was our tutor (his doctor), who was given permission to recount. This story, our tutor said to us, is perhaps the reason why our patient had no wife, and no children. At the age of 23, Mr Wallace was in a committed relationship with a woman that I will call Grace. It was a couple of days before Christmas and Mr Wallace was intending to pick Grace up from her house (where she lived with her parents) for dinner. He arrived instead to a scene of devastation. A fire had burned the house to the ground.
Grace, was inside.
Our tutor described how broken Mr Wallace appeared to be when telling this story. He stressed that patients will come in with more than one problem, and while we may not be able to fix everything, if there was something we could do for them, it was to listen.
I walked away from that session with an overwhelming sense of sadness. It was sobering to realise and remember that there are hardships people experience that I (selfishly but hopefully) never will. How different we people are, the paths we take, yet somehow we end up here, on two sides of a bed (terrible way to put it, I know). We may all be cogs in a wheel, but hell, do we have a story to tell.