July, 2009

I lost my father to Alzheimer's and its complications a few years ago. It was a horrifying and confusing experience to see this brilliant, charming, clever and witty man slowly disappear right before my eyes. He was a one-time champion Golden Gloves boxer, an ambulance driver, a saxophone player and singer with a big band, an Army Ranger and Paratrooper, OSS and CIA agent, author, world traveler and reporter. He crammed more into one lifetime than any three people I know. At the end of his life, he spent all his days in a single small room, petting a cat.

In the span of a few months he went from being just forgetful to being incapable of maintaining his own apartment and performing simple, everyday tasks-- writing checks, buying food, sorting his mail, keeping appointments-- to requiring full-time care for eating, bathing and dressing. Anyone who's faced this disease knows the sadness and bewilderment it causes. It's a cruel, cruel process, which steals ability and personality, bit by bit.

He'd been in the hospital as an emergency admission, was stabilized and then quickly discharged to a nursing home where he spent 30 days (Medicare would only pay for so much time). We managed to find a decent assisted living facility near our home and arranged to transfer him there. Along the way, he'd been seen and evaluated by several different medical people-- but never for more than a cursory exam, really. He had several different medications, and he certainly didn't know what they were, much less which ones to take at what times. I had no confidence that he'd been properly evaluated.

Completely confused, but glad that he was going to settle into a stable and caring environment, I determined to see that he was fully checked and that his meds were appropriately prescribed. I called my own doctor, whom my wife and I have both been going to for years. His receptionists took my call, and I outlined to her what was happening and how I needed to get Pop thoroughly examined. She asked, "Is your father on Medicare?" When I told her that he was, she said "Doctor G. isn't taking any more Medicare patients at the moment." I asked her if she would ask him for a suggestion, or to recommend someone I might take Pop to see. She put me on hold. About five minutes later, she picked up the phone and said, with a smile in her voice, "Doctor G. says to please bring your father in. He'll be happy to see him. Can you come tomorrow morning?" We sure could..!

Doctor G. is an ex military doctor, and a thoroughly decent and caring man. He knew my dad was an old World War 2, Airborne Ranger-- a Battle Of The Bulge survivor. He was sort of in awe whenever I spoke to him about Pop. During this, their first meeting Pop was (fortunately) pretty lucid. They gabbed about the Army, and Pop's time in the Ardennes, as well as his years in Viet Nam. Pop could go on and on about his paratrooper days, as though they happened last week instead of 60 years ago.

Dr. G. mentioned General Hal Moore, (played by Mel Gibson in the movie "We Were Soldiers") a rather famous combat veteran who served in Viet Nam. "He's a very good friend of mine" Pop said. Dr. G. looked at me for confirmation, because Pop had also mentioned to him during the exam that I was his Captain, as well as being "...the Grand Marshal Of The Parade" you see... It was hard to tell sometimes if he was grounded in reality, as he spoke so matter-of-factly. I nodded and assured him, "Yeah; he and Hal are old friends." Dr. G was extremely impressed.

He conducted a complete physical exam and carefully examined all the medical records I had available. He also looked carefully through the slew of medicines I'd brought along from Pop's various prescriptions. He tossed some of them in the trash, recommended reducing or increasing the dosage on a couple of them, and wrote new prescriptions for a couple of other things. He also made a few follow-up appointments to check Pop in the coming months, and see that his meds were balancing out all right. When we knew that the end was not far away, he wrote the "Do Not Resuscitate" order that would prevent any unnecessary or heroic efforts at prolonging his life.

There was never a fee. No charge ever appeared on my insurance-- they didn't even attempt to collect a co-pay. When I sputtered out a "But... but... um... I mean... " he replied, "No, it was my lunch hour. I never charge for consultations during my lunch hour." "You usually eat your lunch at 8:30 AM?” I asked. He just smiled and winked.

I got a really nice card from him after Pop died, in which he told me how much he was honored to serve my dad, and how impressed he was with my level of concern for him. "It's very, very rare that I ever get a chance to take care of a hero,” he said.

I was thinking about him today as I was going through my bookshelves. I have several volumes from Pop's old library, and I've found something-- an appropriate keepsake and gift--I'm going to give to Dr. G. at my next visit with him. I have my own signed copy, too--

-- but I think he'd get a real kick out of owning this copy. It's the least I can do. I think Pop would approve.

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