I had a patient recently who will stay in my memory for many years to come.
He’s not an old man, barely middle-aged. He’s a homeless drunk, “frequent flier” on the hospital unit where I work as an aide. He’s admitted on a regular basis for various injuries and illnesses. Now he’s got cirrhosis and cancer and half his body is covered with cellulitis. His skin is yellow from liver failure and brown from living outdoors and red and oozing where the cellulitis has attacked; his teeth are rotten and falling out. Despite all that, however, he has the look of a man who was once athletic and ruggedly handsome. Beneath the dirt and grime, the silver streaks at his temples and in his beard look distinguished, and his eyes are intelligent and startlingly blue.
How does a person come to live this way? I’ve wondered that many times. In his case, it happened in an instant. One minute he was successful and happy, the next his world was shattered and everything that mattered in his life was destroyed.
He did nothing wrong; he was just driving down the road. With him were his parents, his wife, and his children. An 18-wheeler’s brakes failed; there was a crash, and he was the only survivor. Just like that, in the blink of an eye, everything he loved was gone. His body healed, but his soul was mangled beyond recovery. Now he’s a nameless drunk living on the streets, slowly committing suicide from the inside out. People probably look at him and roll their eyes and “tsk-tsk” at the shameful way he lives. More likely they don’t look at him at all. What they don’t understand is that they aren’t so different from him. They just haven’t had their lives run over by a truck. That doesn’t make them better; only luckier. Luck is not a matter of personal accomplishment, and does not justify pride.
I bathed him as carefully as I could, but still the pain was excruciating. Cellulitis hurts like hell, and he had it everywhere. He tried not to cry out, but it plainly hurt when I touched him. I kept apologizing, but each time he would say “you don’t have anything to be sorry for; you’re helping me.” There was no sense of entitlement or expectation. He was deeply grateful for every little thing.
The sum total of every difficult and painful experience I have ever endured doesn’t amount to even a fraction of what this man has been through. And yet although he’s given up on life and has pickled himself with booze to try to numb his pain, he’s not laying around moaning “poor me, pity me, care for me.” He smiles and thanks people for the most insignificant acts of kindness. He told me several times about the generosity of a pastor who allowed him to sleep on the porch of a church. All he did was let the guy sleep on the porch, but from the genuine gratitude in this man’s face and voice when he talks about it, you’d think he’d been provided with lavish accommodations. I feel strangely honored at having gotten to meet this man. Some would see him as just a no-good homeless drunk, and admittedly, he has given up on life and is eating out of other people’s garbage and drinking himself into a stupor while he waits to die. But somehow, in spite of everything, he is able to be genuinely thankful for things most of us just take for granted.
I wonder if I could find it in myself to be grateful for anything, in his place, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not so sure I could. I think that might just make him a better person than me. It’s a humbling thought.