I visited a colleague in the hospital today. I’d call him a friend but I really didn’t know him all that well outside of work. He was outspoken and good-hearted and I greatly appreciated him as a leader and someone of integrity. We used to take a coffee at work and shoot the shit and rag on other colleagues. A cool guy. Anyway, about 18 months ago, on a Friday, I got a call from him totally stressed out, migraine headache that he couldn’t shake, and yet a work trip to New York for which he was leaving the next day. About a week later, I learned that he had lapsed into a come. He had apparently caught some exotic virus that attacks the brain cells directly. His body rejected the antibiotics they fed him so things worsened. At one point they woke him up, but he was in so much pain that they knocked him out again. And then, just a they were literally going to pull the plug, he woke up. He was more or less paraplegic with only partial use of one hand. They expected years of therapy and that it was unlikely that he’d come back to work. It was quite a shock. I can only think that he was not taking enough distance from his stress in life and, weakened, his body succumbed to this awful virus, but there is no way to know for sure.
Last summer, I visited him in his hospital room. He was exhausted from a session of physical therapy. His skin tone was rather pale his eyes sunken shadows, and – more shocking for such a previously vigorous lover of life – he was skeletal in appearance. I tried speaking with him but his hearing wasn’t all that great and it was clear that he needed to rest. I felt exceedingly uncomfortable and took my leave when it was clear that my visit was wearing him out. I came away rather shaken.
Today, I returned to see him – this time in the little cafeteria near his room. He was in his wheelchair reading with a fellow wheelchair-bound patient. In a typical way of his, he asked me to wait while he completed two sentences. The book was Notes on the making of Apocalypse Now by Eleanor Coppola. He was listening to The Doors on his headphones. Again, typical. When he was ready to talk, he explained that he had done loads of physical therapy that day – that’s about all he does – and so he was exhausted. He now can use both hands and arms and got use of his left leg. He can feel the muscles in his right leg but can’t move as much as a toe on that foot. We chatted – sometimes uncomfortably – about this and that: work gossip, his recovery process, things happening with me, and assorted topics – for about 30 minutes before he rolled back towards his room. I knew from others that on top of losing his health, his wife divorced him (don’t know if this was happening before the coma or not but I suspect it was already engaged at that point). This wasn’t mentioned in the course of the conversation but he did mention how on the (rare?) occasions that he sees his kids (13 and 14), they seem to be changing every time he sees them. I walked with him from the cafeteria through this long cement corridor full of graffiti tags back to the elevator up to his room. Just as the door opened, after a small uncomfortable silence, he thanked me for coming and said that it meant a lot to him. The doors closed and I walked back down the darkened corridor alone and sad.
As I lit a cigarette heading to my car, it struck me in the face how delicate a balance life really is. How the daily bullshit of work pales when set against what this colleague is going through. My lesson out of this is that I will not let work eat me up and spit me out. When I think about it, I know lots of people that have had breakdowns due to burn out. A scary number that probably requires more than one hand to count. While none are living the hell of this one colleague, it is still a hair-raising prospect. In spite of the dreary perspective in front of him, he seemed confident in a one day at a time kind of a way. Perhaps, we can all take a lesson from that and ensure that our lives have space for the truly important things and not just the transient annoyances of daily life and work. It certainly got me re-evaluating what is truly important and gave me a bit of perspective that I wanted to share.
Get well soon JN.