This story happened early in my career and has weighed on me from time to time since. The disease responsible crops up all too frequently in my own family. I am afraid something of similar caliber will happen to me one day.
It was late evening, maybe 9pm, when the call came through, “Code 4: Cardiac arrest. CPR in progress.” We responded to the address lights and sirens and were met at the door of a victorian home by an elderly woman. She had a far-off look, as if she was viewing us from behind a veil. She did not speak until I introduced ourselves and asked her what was going on, where was the patient?
She beckoned us inside and told us it was her husband, his heart had stopped. My veteran partner realized something was a-miss right away but I was in go-go mode. The woman stopped in her living room and stared at a blue velveteen sofa. I asked her again, where was her husband? She pointed at the vacant couch and stammered, “He…he was right here. I don’t know where he went.” She bent over and peered into the three inch gap behind the couch where no man could possibly be found. She looked at me with lost eyes and I told her it was ok, we’d look for him together. Of course I was confused. I had no idea if her husband was ever in cardiac arrest, or if she had miraculously gotten a ROSC and he went to lie in bed, or if he was wandering down the street. As we turned on lights and checked rooms and closets, the truth never really occurred to me.
A concerned neighbor showed up by this time and was speaking to my partner outside. They quickly solved the disappearing act and what they told me broke my heart. The lady’s husband had been dead for over thirteen years. She was in fact a retired physician and had performed CPR on him in their home when he died. Our “patient” was in fact a ghost. The woman was developing Alzheimer’s.
Of course we couldn’t leave her like that. The woman deserved an explanation, some resolution or closure. I decided since I had built some rapport with her during our wild goose chase that I would be the one to tell her. While my partner notified family, I got us each a glass of water and we sat down together at her kitchen table. I started the conversation by asking about her new medications, as well as any recent confusion or forgetfulness. She was lucid enough by then to agree that yes, she had been diagnosed with early signs of dementia.
I then took her hands in mine and tried to prepare her for the coming shock…what happened tonight was a very old memory being replayed. I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me or have a complete meltdown and start screaming. But she just nodded her head as if I had said the most obvious thing in the world. Meanwhile I was holding back tears. She sighed, patted my hand, and asked me what my name was again.
Such cruelness- a disease that forces someone to vividly relive one of the most painful days of their lives over a decade later. I could not shake the image of the doctor compressing her couch cushions, telling her deceased lover to just breath damn it!
Alzheimer’s affects 747,000 Canadians- 72% of which are women. 1
Constantly witnessing horrible things unfold to good people and being able to do so little about it is rough.
Be Alzheimer’s aware.
Some facts have been changed to protect patient identity.
Also worth a read…