Lessons From a ‘Difficult Patient’
The morning of January 26th, 2014 was almost as much of a nightmare as the afternoon that preceded it, when my mother, who was 83 years old, was admitted to the hospital suffering from “anxiety” and breathing difficulties. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor and scheduled for radiation treatment.
After we found out she was sick, we spent a bit of time with our kids. I think we got more than a bit lost in thought, because, once my son mentioned he wanted one of those “real doctors” who would give him “the real treatment with the real needles, and the real shots,” my mother became agitated and aggressive. In fact, she wanted to go to the floor immediately because she was having trouble breathing. Not surprisingly, then, the rest of us were having a real hard time getting her stabilized.
We gave her a Xanax to help her relax and sleep. That only made matters worse. The next thing I know, my mother was asking the nurses for pain meds. She wanted two Vicodin.
There were two things to be aware of in this story. The first was that she was very old, frail, and very sick. We wanted to avoid end-of-life decisions on our part. The second was that we were all in this for a few days and it wasn’t our mother who was dying; it was her illness.
I’ve found that as patients get sicker, they get angrier and more aggressive: They don’t have the tools to manage their anger, fear, sadness, or any other emotion they could have. So they become what they have been all along–aggressive, out-of-control, irrational, and angry. They don’t even know themselves if they are behaving this way because they are sick, but they know they are getting older and they know they need to stop behaving in this manner. It’s as if being sick makes one angry or upset, because they feel they need