In 2013 my husband John had severe chest pain. I drove him to the hospital emergency department. The diagnosis was aortic dissection. A retired physician, my husband made this diagnosis before he walked in the hospital door. He was bleeding to death and the health care team pumped blood into him as quickly as possible. Team members couldn’t keep up with the blood loss, so my husband had two emergency operations. They didn’t work.
John agreed to life-threatening surgery because he wanted to see our twin grandchildren graduate from college. It was a 13-hour operation with four surgeons. During the surgery he suffered a spinal stroke that paralyzed his legs. He was hospitalized for eight months and finally dismissed to my care.
John was thrilled to be home, but it wasn’t the home he remembered so fondly. While he was recovering I built a wheelchair-friendly townhome for us. Moving to a new place, three emergency operations, and life-saving medications affected his memory. His personality had also changed and, although John was polite, he could be quite demanding.
For example, as soon as I poured his coffee John would ask for cream. “You have to give me time to turn around, open the refrigerator, and get the cream,” I replied.
“I’m not trying to pressure you,” John answered, but his constant requests felt like pressure. Some examples:
- “Move the over-the-bed table closer.”
- “You have to line up the electric wheelchair with the bed.”
- “It’s time to put on my socks and shoes.”
- “We have to get some wine for our guests.”
All of these comments referred to things I was going to do, and I didn’t need to be reminded of them. Clearly, John wasn’t going to change, and the only person who could change was me, and I decided to mentally reverse roles with him. According to the online Medical Dictionary, role reversal is the act of assuming the role of another person to appreciate how the person feels, perceives, and behaves in relation to himself or herself and to others.
How would I feel if I was in a wheelchair? Frustration is the first thing that comes to mind. If I was honest with myself, I’d probably be angry. Having to use a grabber to position my feet on the wheelchair rests would be just plain annoying. I’d feel helpless, too, and have to come to terms with my disability. Lack of dignity also comes to mind, and I recalled John’s comment, “I gave up on modesty long ago.”
Mentally reversing roles with my husband enabled me to see things I had missed.. I realized that John’s comments were, and continue to be, a way of retaining some control over his life. The realization was humbling. My normally patient nature has returned and each day I awaken with profound gratefulness for John’s love and company. We love each other more than ever and I respect John for all the things he has done in life.
His comments are nothing when compared to John’s achievements and courage. I am so proud to be his wife.
Harriet is the author of several books on caregiving, including The Family Caregiver’s Guide, Affirmations for Family Caregivers, and Journal for Family Caregivers. Her next book, The Family Caregiver’s Cookbook: Easy-Fix Recipes for Busy Caregivers, will be released this fall.