Elizabeth Phillips: The long journey

Published: Monday, January 21, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 5:04 p.m.

Every day we are faced with life and death, but this past year seemed especially intense in its tragedy and loss. Below are some thoughts based on my experiences with people and families coping with catastrophic injuries and loss of loved ones.

First of all, suffering is no respecter of persons. Any one of us could be in the same situation tomorrow regardless of physical health, background, gender, affluence, religious affiliation, educational level or sphere of influence in our communities.

Frequently, people are injured while taking risks or being careless. In stark contrast, many others are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. All it takes is a momentary lapse of judgment on our part or that of another.

Have you ever slipped on a wet surface? Missed a step because you were carrying too much? Abruptly passed a vehicle because it was moving too slow in your opinion? Pushed the proverbial envelope to impress someone? The action doesn't even need to be inherently dangerous to result in injury. All it takes is a moment and life as you know it is spinning out of control.

Second, catastrophic injuries cause pain not only for the individuals but also anyone who cares about them. That increased emotional intensity is reflected in the interactions between family, friends, medical staff and injured people.

Whatever relationship dynamics exist - whether supportive or destructive - are amplified exponentially. Parents or spouses will remain at bedside, forsaking sleep, nourishment and anything else so that they will be there at the first sign of response.

Conversely, any resentment between siblings or significant others and family will assuredly flare up in the face of the imminent impact these injuries have on their lives. Injured people with estranged or no family at all find little consolation in spite of the most compassionate care. The experience reiterates the stark reality that they are alone in this world. The desperation in their eyes is profound.

Still, a little kindness goes a long way. If we can remember the times in our lives when we too were hurting, we tend to treat our patients or clients with higher regard for the unique people they are. Even family members who have to assertively advocate for injured loved ones can do so while still appreciating the care that medical staff provide and recognizing the enormous stress under which they work. The results are usually far better than the adversarial "us" vs. "them" perspective.

This kindness is also found in true friends and close family who are still "checking in" after the initial shock of the news has been tempered by the passing of several months.

Traumatic brain injury in particular is aptly described as "incomplete death." The families and even the individuals mourn the loss of who they were before injury. The ongoing effect of short-term memory loss, personality changes, uncontrolled emotions, and decreased inhibition can lead to extreme depression.

Still, there is hope in the "incomplete." You do have another chance to express your love to those who are dear to you. You do have that one more day to make sure that nothing important is left unsaid.

Finally, faith brings great strength beyond what can be explained. It is a marvelous anchor, holding firm regardless of how recent or long ago the individuals or family members last held to it.

Even if the individuals apparently have no family or friends, they recognize that they are never truly alone. A quiet resolve grows in spite of unchanged or even worsening circumstances. They experience the same emotional roller coaster but recognize true life as that which doesn't end when the heart fails or brain waves cease.

In this light, the injuries (or chronic illnesses for that matter) are regarded as temporary even if the conditions last for years. They know that one day they will lay down this suffering like a robe and bid their loved ones farewell; for even the separation of death is temporary. They find hope in the object of their faith and the promise that they will one day be completely free.

Elizabeth Phillips lives in Bronson.

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