continued from below
Only a moment or two after I stepped out of the Romano’s room, I received another page. I dialed the number and was dispatched to a general medicine unit. The nurse, Connie, explained to me that her patient Francis Woodson was having a bad pain day. “They call him Frankie and he is a very kind man,” she said. I was told that Frankie has advanced ALS and has been declining rapidly. Connie was busy with many patients and thought that if someone could just come sit and talk with Frankie, it would help calm him. I would be right up, I said.
I reached Frankie’s room and double checked the number on the door. (I’d gone to the wrong room before, which was embarrassing and awkward.) In the few moments I paused in the open doorway, I heard a weak voice saying, “help me; help me.” Wrong room or not, I was in the right place. I entered the room and found Mr. Woodson laying on his side facing the door. He wore the standard hospital gown and the blankets of the bed were tangled with his ankle socks. Classical music was playing loudly from a portable CD player beside the bed.
“Help me,” he moaned, the words seemed to be pushed out on strangled puffs of air. His jaw worked continuously.
“Mr. Woodson, my name is Corrie.” I approached the bed and stood beside him. “I’ve come to spend some time with you.”
“He—head. H—elp me. Hurt.”
Frankie’s eyes stared at the wall behind me. His right shoulder was against the mattress, his arm lay by his head, stiff and unmoving. His left arm rose from the mattress and waved erratically through the space between us. “Help me.” I clasped his hand in my left one and as I held it stationary, I could feel the muscular impulses from his arm pushing at our joined hands. His eyes closed, clinched, and opened again.
“Frankie, how can I help you?” I’d never worked with an ALS patient before. I knew the basics of the disease, but didn’t know the recommended therapeutic plan. All I knew was Frankie couldn’t control his body and that he was in pain.
“Head. Head.” His words were strained. They started at a high pitch and trailed down to a wheeze. “Help me.”
Then I noticed that Frankie was slumped down so that his head was against the plastic rail that lined the bed. There were pillows between his legs, at his back and under his head, but all of his weight was pressing on his forehead. I told Frankie that I was going to get him some help and released my hand from his. After untangling the sheets from his ankles and spreading them smoothly over his legs, I went to the nearby nurse’s station and requested Mr. Woodson’s nurse. I told the receptionist that I needed someone to come adjust Frankie, that he had slid into an uncomfortable position. She said she would send someone immediately.
“Immediately” turned into another ten minutes of waiting. I stood at Frankie’s side while he moaned and whimpered. I debated whether or not to move him myself but Frankie seemed fragile – his legs were likes spindles, bone without muscle or flesh to dress them – I had no training or clearance to move him. His cries and his obvious pain made me anxious and desperate. I did my best to reassure him by telling him over and over that I was with him, that help was coming, by holding his hand.
“Pain,” he said. “Head.” I returned to the nurse’s station and requested help again. Soon a nurse came to adjust Frankie’s position. She thanked me for alerting her and positioned more pillows around Frankie so he wouldn’t fall. Frankie and I were alone again. He seemed more settled, less distressed, but continued to speak intermittently. I took his hand again. He turned his blue eyes toward me for the first time. “Pain,” he said.
“Frankie, I see you are in pain. I’m here with you. God is with you. God is here.” It seemed the only consolation I could give him. I couldn’t take away his pain. This was his life now — to be a man physically helpless, aware but trapped in a body that only offered pain and helplessness. “God is here, Frankie. He will never leave you.” Holding his gaze, our clasped hands waving through the air between us, I said a prayer. Frankie’s gaze returned to the wall.
“Yes, Frankie. I know. I see. I’m here.”
I stood beside him, here to help, but I knew I was just as helpless as he. All I could think of was this: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36, 40)