Along with the primary diagnosis of cancer, a hospice nurse rapidly and efficiently listed her patient’s other health issues at our team meeting. One of the patient’s concerns was . . . “pathological fracture.”
To which I thought, “Huh? What?”
I first thought of pathological liar, a phrase I’ve read in novels and seen in films. Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar from 1997 humorously came to mind. There he played a lawyer who frequently and thoughtlessly lied. Lying for Carrey’s character was no different than breathing. But did the familiar “pathological liar” have anything to do with “pathological fracture?”
In the realm of words, there’s a common ground because of “pathology,” or the study of diseases. Lying about everything, though funny in a movie, will hurt, and can be diagnosed as an illness. Lying cripples a person and profoundly impacts every relationship. A pathological fracture literally cripples a patient. When cancer and other diseases weaken the body, a costly side effect may include fractured bones. I’ve broken a finger, nose and leg and know how painful a break can be. But some kind of foolishness or unavoidable accident caused my problems. My bad bone history involved bike rides, basketball games and a tumble down a mountain slope. From minor to major inconvenience, they were all part of an “Oops!” However, “Oops” doesn’t seem an appropriate response for a bone fractured because cancer has ravaged an arm or leg.
There is another, figurative way to understand the secondary damages caused by insidious diseases. Bones aren’t the only things that will be “broken.” Caregivers are worn down. Families experience turmoil. Whatever was once perceived as “normal” at home or work seems like a different person’s different life. I wish I could wave a magic wand to make the caregiver’s life easier. I can’t. I recall my mother’s anguish as she supported Dad while he sank into dementia’s quicksand. He was unaware of his delusions or altered sleep patterns. But all of his disease’s twists and turns weakened Mom. Even after he was placed in a care facility, Mom’s support—and her “fractures”—continued. She slept fitfully, ate poorly and rarely had time for friends.
In Katy Butler’s insightful, unsettling 2013 memoir, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, she wrote about her 83-year old mother, caring for her husband following his stroke: “She put her hand, hard, on my arm. ‘He is killing me,’ she said. ‘He. Is. Ruining. My. Life.’ Then she crossed her ankles and put her head between her knees, a remedy for near-fainting that she’d clipped from a newspaper column and pinned to the bulletin board behind her. She was taking care of my father for about a hundred hours a week.”
In 2012, the AARP estimated that “65.7 million caregivers make up 29% of the U.S. adult population providing care to someone who is ill, disabled or aged.”
I have no solution to the secondary bones and hearts that will break when a devastating illness impacts a person and their family and friends, but I do plea for compassionate action. I do plea for families to heal petty disagreements between siblings, to avoid the convenience of saying sorry-I’m-too-busy-to-help or to not claim ignorance about the burdens on an overwhelmed mother/father or sister/brother. Seek ways to support the caregiver . . . now! We are all fractured.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)
X-ray image from here.by