I recommend reading this article closely. I wonder if it will bring up as many memories and mixed feelings for you as it did for me.
I’m single and live alone. And on many forms, I can’t fill in the line for ‘In case of emergency.’
By Elana Rabinowitz (April 4, 2020)
The author describes two times in her life when she had to confront a medical crisis/procedure on her own and discovered that there was no one she felt she could call on for a ride or to have company in the immediate aftermath. She describes her panic; also her consternation that even at 40 she is still listing her 80 year old parents “in case of emergency.” Afterwards, reaching out to family and friends she finds comfort in learning about others’ experiences of going to the ER and other medical procedures alone. In closing she remarks:
“As this pandemic bears down on us, many people have and will face going to an ER, or even an intensive care unit, alone.
If this is the case, there is a certain comfort in knowing that there are others out there who care and are thinking of you — and in that way you are never truly isolated.”
My immediate reaction? The Covid-19 contagion crisis mandates isolation from family and friends in hospital ER’s and ICU’s. This is an exceptional situation. The pandemic will recede; social isolation measures will relax. We will still have acute illness episodes and medical emergencies.
Just because we have handled medical crises all by ourselves doesn’t mean that this was an optimal solution. Yes, people keeping us in mind can bring a certain degree of comfort. We are also hardwired to need the physical presence of a familiar face; hands that impart warmth and reassurance. We will need people with the time and energy to provide services (rides, shopping, laundry, etc.) at least short term.
Whom can I ask to assist me in an emergency? Can I ask family, friends, and/or acquaintances to disrupt their day on short notice? What if I ask and their answer is no? Do I really want to discover that I am 18th on someone’s list of priorities or not on the list at all?
In 2018 I wrote a blog about the 3 A’s of Care: Allies, Agreements and Alchemy, looking at the challenges of giving and receiving care with our peers. How do we start the conversation? How do we negotiate agreements? More fundamentally, how do we reach out in trust?
A story comes to mind. Some years ago a friend called on a Sunday morning because his elderly neighbor was experiencing pain and some confusion. The wife was not sure what to do. There was both panic and paralysis. I went to the house. I urged them to go to the ER either driven by their neighbor or in an ambulance. Those were the only two choices.
We drove to the ER where he was admitted immediately. My friend kept company with the wife in the waiting room and I stayed with the husband. Periodically we traded places. It became clear to me that the wife was cognitively challenged—kept asking the same questions over and over without being able to retain the answers; could not grasp why we were at the hospital; and so on. Good news—eventually the ER staff was able to stabilize the husband’s situation.
At one point I was standing next to the bed happy to notice the improved color and absence of pain lines; also noticing that he had an almost painfully strong grip on my hand. He introduced himself; talked a bit about his life and times. The ER doc came in and described the situation as a very acute panic attack that could have become something worse; asked if he was under any stress and left before hearing an answer
The man looked at me (the bluest of blue eyes) and I looked at him. By this time I had spent a couple of hours with his wife. I decided to go for it—asking how long she had been in cognitive decline. He teared up and turned his head away. I asked what kind of help he had in dealing with this: diagnosis, prognosis, home care, etc. Still turned away from me but with an iron grip on my hand, he said “none.” A solo provider of 24-7 care for someone in her condition—no wonder he had a stress event!
I reached over and turned his face to mine; said that this was a prescription for disaster; that there was assistance available. I could see his face shut down so I asked him if there was someone from whom he could hear this. “You don’t know me. Why should you trust me? Perhaps there is a doctor, minister, friend, attorney we could meet with to talk about plans for care that would address BOTH of your needs.” His response: “There is no one I trust.” End of conversation.
After 8+ hours we brought them both home. Later that week he sent me an orchid. I never saw them again. He never did bring in any help. A year later he committed suicide. No plan for his wife’s ongoing care.
I can still see his face as he said: “There is no one I trust.”
Over decades of providing care I have seen this play out again and again. Pull up the drawbridge! Lower the portcullis! Dig the moat deeper and fill it with piranhas! The challenge? How to get much needed information and services through the barriers, sometimes even food?
Many of us are wounded in our ability to trust. It can seem safer (even if scary and lonely) to soldier on alone in times of crisis. Certainly our society reinforces this kind of grim self-reliance. Later we can tell the tales of how we made it! Cue the applause!
Perhaps we could use the imposed leisure of the pandemic to engage in thought experiments about a different kind of existence? Perhaps to imagine being part of a network who have at least talked about the possibility of being there for each other in times of crisis? Maybe discover that there are two or three people for whom one is first on their list of priorities or at least a clear second? Perhaps take steps to finding allies and creating alliances focused on those In Case of Emergency cards.
And if the answer to Is there someone you trust… is There is no one I trust…then perhaps to do some work on that.