Loretta Salchert is the executive director of Ribbon of Hope, a cancer support ministry that serves Elkhart County and the surrounding area. You can read more of her work in her Elkhart Truth community blog, Ribbons of Hope.
Today I stopped by the hospital to see William. This visit was a little out of the ordinary because he is not one of "our" cancer patients or at "our" hospital. And he wasn't admitted to the hospital because of his cancer. William had been transferred to a hospital located three hours from home due to post-surgical complications. He had caught pneumonia.
It made sense to swing by and visit William as I passed through Indianapolis on the return trip from helping my daughter start her new life and job in Kentucky. The stop was a little out of my way, but I needed a diversion. Visiting patients always touches my heart and quite frankly, I just didn't want to think about my daughter's relocation anymore that day.
And I was tired – tired of driving and tired of trying to outrun the storms that advanced around me as I travelled the long road between Kentucky and home. I just needed a pit stop. A short respite. A place where I could think about something else. A place to refuel and recharge. Should I stop?
Maybe I should pull out my Superwoman cape and brave the remaining drive home. Maybe William didn't need me to stop by. Maybe he's resting peacefully and my visit would only disturb his rest. Maybe I should just try to stay ahead of the storm. There were so many reasons to stay on the road, but what about my friend? And did I mention that I was tired?
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My ears caught the sound of storm alerts blaring over the car radio.
Within seconds lightening flashed, the storm clouds opened up and torrential rain began to fall on the highway. Common sense kicked in, and I decided to head toward the hospital, where I found a parking spot in the garage. Maybe I stopped because of the weather or maybe I stopped because I needed to see William.
Feeling a little frustrated by the obvious absence of staff to help me navigate the large facility, I eventually found my way to William's room. Visiting hours would soon be over, so I inquired at the nurse's station, making sure my visit would not be a problem for William or the staff. The nurse was pleasant and encouraged me to visit.
What would I find?
I had met William a few years ago through the oncology program at my hospital. Years earlier cancer had taken his voice box. William didn't allow his loss to prevent him from being a great storyteller, a jokester, a passionate political debater, a proud father and grandfather, and one who seemed to find joy in lightening someone's day with a joke or a candy truffle. He had learned to live life with a stoma and the use of a new speaking device called an electrolarynx. Cancer had taken his voice box but not taken his ability to communicate with others.
Every few months William would drop by the oncology unit with chocolate truffles and a story. At first his electronic sounding voice left me feeling uncomfortable. Was it painful? Did he feel awkward around people? My uneasiness soon dissipated. Before long I found myself pulled in by his stories, his jokes, pictures of his sons and grandchildren. William was not just a cancer survivor, but he was my friend.
I stepped into his room and found my friend attempting to communicate with the nurse. William was obviously frustrated because the nurse continued to ask detailed questions that could not be answered easily because he didn’t have his electrolarynx. He had no voice. I stepped into William's line of site and winked at him. He smiled. Question after question came with no audible response from William. I couldn't take it anymore. I broke Ribbon of Hope protocol and asserted, "He doesn't have his electrolarynx. I would recommend that you turn around and face him to get the answers to your questions.” The nurse looked at me sheepishly as he quickly reviewed William's chart. "Sorry about that, William, I wasn't thinking."
"How's your pain level on a scale of one to ten?" asked the nurse. William jotted something on his electric note pad. The nurse read his comment and asked, "64?" I jumped in and said, "No, it says "six and three-quarters. He's just messing with you." The nurse smiled and excused himself.
William looked frail and vulnerable. An oxygen mask lay atop a tube left from what was at one time a fully attached ventilator. In spite of the pain and the medication, my friend was laying there appearing to appreciate my visit. For the next 30 minutes we communicated back and forth. He would write or make gestures to communicate. I would offer topics. My friend was present even though there were moments when the medication and his pain made it difficult for him to remember how to spell words and names.
"I feel like I'm suffocating," he wrote. "I don't think I'm going to make it back home." He looked up at me as I read his note. "William, that could feel pretty scary for anyone facing a similar situation. We've gotten to know each other pretty well over the last few years. I know you love your family. How's your relationship with Christ, William?" He smiled, hit the delete button on his note pad and began to write. "God and I have had that discussion. My relationship with him is good, and I'm ready to go when he takes me." He handed me the note pad as if he NEEDED me to read it. "That's great news William," I said. "I needed to know that, my friend. I need to get back on the road. Can I pray with you before I leave?" William dropped the notepad and grabbed for my hands. Together, we prayed.
I opened my eyes as I said, "Amen," and noticed tears running down his face. He looked up at me and smiled. "Do you want me to deliver a message to the staff back in Elkhart?" He picked up his notepad again and wrote, "Keep the faith." I asked him if I could take a picture of his message so that I could place it on the bulletin board at work. He nodded. I took the photo, said my goodbyes and reminded William that I needed him to get better because he was the only one who brought me truffles. He smiled.
I left his room, walked down the hallway, found my way out of the hospital and stepped outside.
Something had changed. The late day sunlight kissed my face. It was a welcome change from what I had experienced an hour earlier. I was no longer tired. The thoughts of my daughter's relocation had moved to another place in my thoughts. I felt renewed, encouraged.
My heart was full....again.
Ribbon of Hope, Inc.
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