Hospice Patients Alliance: Patient Advocates


Stranger


by Ron Panzer

December 19, 2011



Did you ever play that game when you were a little child? ... the one at night, or early morning, where you're sitting in the back seat of the car waiting for someone, Daddy or Mommy, and you see a car coming by with its lights on, a "dragon?" and you duck low so he won't see you and "get you." Even worse, a car with only one headlight: a "one-eyed dragon!" Quick! Get down!

Well, we did, a long time ago, waiting in the car, on our way to go fishing with our Daddy. "Rise and shine," he called, and we all struggled out of bed. You've got to get an early start sometimes.

Of course, it helps to have a couple of brothers or sisters to make the game fun. Even at that age, we are social beings. We want a friend, someone to listen and watch, someone to share our insights and imagination with. And when in need, someone to come to our aid.

And then you peak out, and the dragon's gone. So, you wait for the next car to come along at 4:00 or 4:30 a.m. in the morning. It's pitch black out. And another car comes along, but you know it's "a dragon" and you duck again.

Anyone watching the car might wonder what those crazy little kids are doing, popping up and down every now and then, yelling out "dragon!" But my older sister and brothers remember what it was all about.

Nowadays, you can drive along and see people along the way. You might think, "stranger!" "stranger!" You might be right. And you might be really afraid of stopping the car and walking up to that man or woman. "That would be nuts!" you think. And you might be right. It could be dangerous. Matter of fact, everyone's taught you that it is dangerous and not to even talk to a stranger, let alone walk up to one and strike up a conversation.

We're conditioned to fear anything unknown: unknown persons, places and things. Yes, that's the definition of a "noun," so, in other words, we've been taught to fear just about anything new or different out there. Maybe we should all just stay home, watch TV, take our antidepressants and pay our taxes. We'd be no "trouble" for anyone then, right?

But that's not any fun, no fun at all, and certainly not a way to enjoy the world or live a life. I've been all around the world and I've never met a stranger anywhere at all. Looking back into my eyes were the eyes of someone who also wanted to be loved, befriended, accepted. Mostly friendly eyes. Like the old Italian man who smiled as I stopped my bicycle on the road and told me his country was "il giardino del mondo," the garden of the world, and those in India who told me it was the land of the divine.

Like the "dragon," when you see it for what it really is, the dragon becomes simply a car, nothing to fear, and the stranger becomes someone just like you and me, or realistically, ok, sometimes not. But should we fear and avoid almost all in order to avoid the one dangerous one? Is there another way to live? Should we keep to ourselves, isolating ourselves from anyone except family and friends we already know?

We naturally care most about our own family and friends, people we've come to love. And we trust them. We've shared experiences and spent time together. We have a relationship! Yes, that's what it is, a "relationship." We don't have relationships with "strangers." But I did.

Everywhere I went, there was a relationship, and it didn't take time. It was immediate. Not that all relationships were sweet. Some were not, and some were actually very dangerous, but still, people were who they were, not "a stranger." Some were unbelievably kind and generous and loving.

The baker I met one hot day was another case. It was in that city with the dusty dirt roads, a place almost torn from another time. There were wonderful flat breads from huge stone ovens! The baker smiled and asked where I kept my passport. That was a really strange question that kept nagging at me for a while.

At night after he offered his rooftop as a place to escape the heat and rest for a while, I thought about it, not knowing what to think. But deep inside something warned me that it was dangerous, and I left. If I hadn't, I wouldn't be here today. Passports, American passports, were quite valuable then and still are today. He wasn't a "stranger," just someone who cared more for one thing than me. That happens sometimes.

You just have to listen to your instincts and get out of there. When you choose to live life open to those around you, you get to hear that voice a little louder. You feel more and see more. You live more.

Patients and families in the health care setting, especially hospice and palliative care today, need to listen to the inner voice a lot more. When that little voice inside tells you something's really not right, you have to act. Usually, your instincts are right on, because common sense and what your gut tells you still apply at the end-of-life.

It doesn't matter if several nurses or even a doc come up and rationalize the irrational, explaining away what absolutely doesn't make sense to you. If after all those explanations and sometimes intimidation, if it still doesn't make sense to you, it probably isn't, and you better get out of there, or get those who are misleading you out of there (if you're in your own home).

Good care is going to feel right. And if you're not sure, the explanations really should make sense.

So many people contact us saying that they "knew something was wrong," that what the nurses said contradicted what they saw right in front of them, but they didn't do anything about it. They heard the nurse say, "Oh, this will help him sleep," when he had no trouble sleeping, or "Oh, this increased dose of pain medication will make sure he doesn't have any pain," when there was no pain that was out of control.

Yes, the obvious conclusion is often right: they're giving something that isn't needed. And, if they're giving something that isn't needed, it's being given for some other reason. And, oh God, are they really going to ... ? You don't want to think it. "No, no, that can't be." you say to yourself, but it is.

And then it's too late. Nurse "whatever" (no matter how sweet-talking or beautiful) did kill him. You know what happened, but nobody listens, nobody hears. They only patronize you with platitudes and tell you that you're ignorant, just a lay person, and don't know anything about end-of-life care. Even if you're a doctor or nurse, they still tell you that you don't understand end-of-life care and that the standards don't apply here (though they do).

Then they offer you counseling which is fine if the care was good. But that's the last thing you would accept when those who killed your loved one are going to do the counseling. Finally, you call here and ask, "how could this possibly have happened?" "Why weren't we warned?" "Why hasn't someone done something?" "I can't believe this happened."

And for the thousandth time, I reply, "It's because those who have come before only care about their own." It would stop if people spoke up, said something, did something, got involved. People promise they'll do their part, but then just fade away. One after another, they just fade away, trying to forget what they can't forget and doing nothing at all that needs to done.

So, I ask, "what will you do?" "Will you help?" And they promise, "yes, I'll do anything." And I never hear from them again.

Of course, knowing what you now know, if it happened in your family, you'd know how to stop it. But it happens to someone else, and someone else and someone else. And in each new case, they ask again, "why did this happen?" "how could this happen?" and years go by. This is not anything new.

Jesus told the story of a man traveling on the road who was attacked, robbed and left to die. Powerful and respected members of society came by, saw him, and then did nothing. Only a lowly Samaritan came by, rescued him and made sure he was taken care of at the inn. (Luke 10:30-37) Was the victim a "stranger?" Well, many thought so and also left him there to die, doing nothing. The Samaritan didn't see it that way. He tended to someone he considered a "neighbor," saving him from certain death.

The solution to how someone can be victimized without anyone coming to his aid is the same today as it was then: each of us must help those whom we don't even know, who are not necessarily "family." (Matthew 5:46-48) But so many of us do nothing at all for "strangers," like the respected members of society who passed the wounded traveler on the road. We want to just "stay safe" and avoid anything that could threaten the stability of the life we know.

It seems we never learn, and the evils of this world continue. We wonder why, how, all of this could happen in this day and age. ... why a patient is hastened to their death. Why violence in the world continues.

Yet, have we cared for a "stranger" along the way? Have we dared to risk a little to make this world a better place?

We need to move through this world seeing only neighbors, being ready to accept anyone as friend, until they prove otherwise. Children may fear "dragons" but we know the time of dragons is over, and most "strangers" should not be treated as such. They're neighbors living on this street, in this town, on this Earth.

What do we do when we see a stranded motorist? someone who needs a ride? somebody being mugged? people who are hungry or out of work? Do we just pass them by, hoping someone else will take care of it?

"Why risk it?" some say. "I'm too busy." "I can't do anything about it." "A good deed never goes unpunished," say others. "Don't get involved!" "I don't have any money to help." "It's not worth it." "What good will it do?" The excuses go on and on.

Are these the words of the wise or the selfish?

Of course, some say that government will take care of all these situations, all these victims. It may help some, but what if it doesn't? What happens to those the government officials choose not to help (for whatever reason)? And what happens to society when we completely rely upon government to help those in need? Does it ennoble the people?

There is something almost magical that happens when a person takes the initiative to reach out to another human being. A relationship is created. Love is possible.

At what price do we see and hear yet walk by without doing anything? When you or I need help, will help be there if we only take care of our own? If we don't help those who can be regarded as "strangers," there won't be anybody to help us when the time comes. And then it will be too late, like the thousands who contact us and ask why their loved one was killed. They wonder how all of it can be stopped.

The answer begins with you and me. Really, it's that simple. We get to choose the type of world we will live in, today, right now. You can live the comfortable life, till you can't, and then it's too late for you.

You can pretend death is not waiting for you at the end and try with all your might to forget it. Or you can choose to be alive to all that is, knowing death waits for us all around the corner.

Ending the pretense we tell ourselves "radicalizes" us. We know that time is limited. Our choices change. No matter what issue touches your heart. No matter what occurs in our society, wherever we find ourselves.

What will it be?

Are you out? Or in?

Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem and were desperate for a place to stay, for Mary was about to give birth to their new child. (Luke 2:6-7) They didn't know anyone there but really needed a friend. They were strangers among the throngs, yet someone saw them and cared enough to direct them to a place where they could stay.

They were treated as friends, not strangers, and the dear Lord Jesus was born in that stable among the animals. At least there was clean straw and a place that was private, away from the crowds. How terrible it would have been if they had not found a place to stay at all? Just think about it. A little touch of kindness and the world has never been the same.

When you go out into the world this day, will it be fearful dragons? Or simple cars on the road?

Shall we be strangers? Or friends?

Will you get involved? There are so many needs and roles to play, whether serving on a local school board, in a government position, helping a charity or simply responding to others wherever you find the need.

Will you turn away from those in need today and tomorrow? Or dare to respond? One cause may not be right for you, but there is certainly something you can do in your own way. That little thing you could do is not insignificant, even if you think so.

What you can do is the difference between living in the darkness and bringing a little light into this world. And that's the difference between being a stranger and being a friend, my friend.



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