On illness and Aleppo

Considering the strain on caregivers and the infirm in war-torn regions

In a comfortable home, with running water, indoor plumbing, a plethora of pain-reducing medications, a full larder of healthy food in the cupboards and the refrigerator, a roof that doesn’t leak, and an electric blanket on the king-size bed, my wife is recovering from a 13-hour surgical procedure to remove the cancer that had taken root in her sinus cavity.

My daughter has flown over from France to help tend to her as she recovers. Home health care nurses have been dispatched to help in the transition back to wholeness and health. Specialized pharmaceuticals and products are prescribed to fend off infection and accommodate for things like post-op walking and showering. Medicare pays for most of these appliances, drugs and nursing, at least for the time being. Like most Americans, we could not bear the cost of this serious medical crisis if that were not the case.

Despite these shields against emotional disorder, personal convalescent care tests the patience of even the most determined caregivers. Despite the love and concern of loved ones, the myriad demands attendant to serious illness and recovery can cause annoyances to mount. The demands of tending to immediate needs can overburden caregivers, or exasperate the ailing loved one. Worries wax and wane, hopes rise and slump. There is an ongoing war with the sense of powerlessness. Energies become scattered, distractions are constant, tasks are interrupted by other more urgent tasks. The division of labor worked out over the years collapses and caregivers assume chores and responsibilities once routinely tended to by the one who is now bedridden, or otherwise incapacitated.

When my wife was first diagnosed, we were told to be prepared for a hard time ahead, told we were in for unfamiliar challenges. And we thought we knew that, of course, because the hard time began once the word “cancer” struck our ears.

But even with a full component of forebodings, there just wasn’t a practical way to anticipate those moments when you have a splitting headache as you remove a load of clothes from the dryer to find you had failed to remove a Kleenex from the pocket of a robe, and then find there are bits of it clinging to the fleece blankets and pullovers. As you are folding and de-linting that stuff, one of the cats begins to audibly puke in the hallway to the bedroom, and the other is making it known the bottom of the food dish has become partially visible. The phone rings with a question about supplementary insurance coverage, and the sick spouse calls out to say that the toilet is backing up. As irritability rises, you are simultaneously stricken with guilt for feeling impatience because it is not you, after all, who has been stricken, carved up and feeling the pain and anxiety much more acutely and immediately.

There are moments like that on most every convalescent day.

How could such days be endured if, in addition to the small accretion of such frustrations and annoyances, small arms fire was erupting outside, your walls were quaking with concussion from bombs exploding nearby, helicopter gunships were whirring overhead, and the screams of wounded and dying people could be heard from what was once the street in front of your house? How do people in places like Aleppo or Mogadishu deal with disease and family illness in such fractured and perilous milieux?

I think of the Irish peasantry as they suffered and died during the great famine—cold, feverish and starving in their 19th century hovels, with filthy rags for clothing, no fuel for the fire, and everyone under those roofs too sick and depleted to tend to the others who were just as sick and depleted. How unendurable, when the needs are so great and there is no way to meet them, no help at hand. What could be more nightmarish?

How fortunate I am, with the sound roof, the electric heating, the healthy daughters and the health that allows me to do what needs doing for the spouse I love, even as her current condition sometimes exasperates my patience and requires me to hide my petty impatience.

Our fellow human beings in places like Aleppo seldom get a time out from the war raging around them, never an escape from the chaos and death that make it so hard to provide the things needed by sick loved ones. Serious illness doesn’t cease when a nation has gone mad. No provisions are made for things like cancer, or pneumonia, or other debilitating diseases when the bombing runs are ordered, when the shells are being launched, when the infrastructure is shattered, hospitals and pharmacies destroyed, police and fire protection no longer available, doctors and nurses few and growing fewer, the fragile web of civilization broken as the bombs continue to rend flesh with such random and indifferent cruelty.

When major illness strikes those we love, when the foundations of our lives are shaken, our fears accelerated, our emotional and physical resources challenged, social stability becomes even more essential. Imagine yourself tending to sick family members in Chico, Oroville, Paradise or Gridley as order descends into chaos, as bombs fall indiscriminately from the skies, as your country engages in self destruction with help from outside forces. Imagine death at every door, then imagine the inexhaustible well of human strain and suffering we would know here in Butte County if we knew what sick people and those who love them know every day in places like Aleppo.