I met Anthony in December of 2017. He was 99 years old and living in a senior building in New Jersey. Before I entered this building, I did what any home care physical therapist would. I read his medical chart on a computer. I did this in my car in the freezing cold and I blew into my fingers to keep them warm as I scrolled between each paragraph.
Anthony had been hospitalized for Respiratory Distress two months ago. His legs and lungs had swelled with fluid when his daughter had brought him to a local hospital. Anthony was put on a ventilator and should not have made it. Only something strange happened. Anthony had recovered. He was weaned from a ventilator. At age 99. I blew into my freezing fingers again and triple checked the information on my computer. This could not be true.
I entered the apartment of Anthony expecting to find a listless, incoherent man in a hospital bed. Instead, I saw a vibrant person with a full head of silver hair, seated on a fancy armchair in his living room. “You must be my physical therapist,” Anthony said, with a twinkle in his eye. “I am glad you came, because I am ready to walk today.”
I informed Anthony that he was in luck, because that was exactly my intention. I hooked my bag on the back of a dining room chair. As I took off my coat, the glint of gold caught my eye. There were black and white pictures and war medals displayed on the wall behind my patient. It was as though I was in a museum.
“It was so cold in France during that battle,” Anthony said. “The snow fell hard, it came up to our waists and then our chests. Many men had frostbite, and a medic would come to amputate their toes and fingers, but we just kept fighting anyway. I remember my platoon-mate, Frank. He was from Indiana. He had a wife named May. I lost Frank during that war, his head was blown off right in front of me.”
Well, this explained why a 99 year old was weaned off of a ventilator, I thought to myself. Anthony had lived through the impossible. He was refusing to die in old age over a breathing problem. And I had a job to do. I promptly retrieved his rolling walker and got Anthony into a standing position. “Let’s go out into the hallway,” I suggested. “It might do you some good to get out of this apartment.”
As we walked through the apartment building hallway, I was struck by the many people who were coming and going who knew and loved Anthony. Where have you been? We have missed you! We were so worried about you, his neighbors declared. Anthony merely nodded and smiled, as he walked further than most people who are years younger. He was determined to keep going. Anthony loved walking and physical therapy.
Anthony’s progress in physical therapy was nothing short of remarkable. His spirit was indomitable. But there came a day when I visited him when he was inconsolable and did not want to participate. “What is going on?” I asked Anthony. “This is not you, this is not the man that I know.” Anthony looked up at me from his chair. “You can’t understand why this day is so important to me. It is December sixteenth. This is the day of the Battle of the Bulge. Every year, on this day, I get on a plane to Florida to spend time with my fellow soldiers. This is the first year that I am not strong enough to be with them.”
What could I say to that? How could I respond? I did what I could. I told Anthony that we needed to walk in the hallway. I assured him that it would make him feel better, though I was not sure that this was true. Anthony slowly stood up, and we took our requisite walk together. There were no people exiting or entering their apartments to cheer him on. It was just a corridor with fluorescent lights and a man with a walker, his healthcare worker guiding him along.
We arrived back at Anthony’s apartment and he lowered himself into his chair. Anthony began to gasp and wheeze. I quickly ran to get his oxygen tubing and apply it to his nose. He pushed it away. “Stop,” he commanded. “I am going to tell you something. And you must listen to me.” I was gravely worried about his breathing.
Anthony then began to laugh. He laughed so hard that I was torn between laughing with him and calling Emergency Services. This is what he told me then: “I used to go on cruise ships to the Bahamas. I loved cruises. I could gamble and eat and see the world! It was only ten years ago that I was on a cruise and I could walk with only a cane. I was wearing my World War II cap when I got on an elevator. The elevator door was ready to close and a young woman spotted my cap. She asked me where I had fought in the war and I told her that I was in the Battle of the Bulge. The girl held the elevator door open and shouted, ‘Grandpa, there is another guy here who fought in your battle!’”
Anthony’s normal breathing pattern had returned and so had the sparkle in his eye. He told me that a very tall man approached the elevator on the cruise ship. “I fought in ze Battle of ze Bulge also,” the man declared in a German accent. “Only I fought for ze other side.” Anthony responded in the cleverest of ways. He swung his cane up against his shoulder and shouted, “Ready your Bayonets!” (This was the battle call for the Allies during the war). The German man beamed. And from that moment on, Anthony and the German soldier Hans spent every meal together on the cruise, exchanging war stories, gambling at card tables and talking about their grandchildren.
Just seventy years earlier, these men had been trained to kill each other. They likely would have, in the moment of the battle. Instead, they found each other in the most unlikely of circumstances, as older men, in the sun and on a vacation. With nothing to gain or lose. They saw each other only as people who had suffered a mutual loss, with the same story, on opposite sides of a very thin fence.
As healthcare workers, we are faced with the same divide of that thin fence. As practitioners, we are often younger and healthier than our patients, we blow into our fingers in the cold as we trudge through the landmines of billing, changes in health insurance, and the stress of ensuring that we are not harming people. It feels like a cold and heavy battle some days.
It is only when we lay down our arms and bayonets that we can see each other. Once we do this, we can finally see our patients as equals. We can see an elderly woman as our mother, a frail old man as that favorite uncle who we might have wanted to know better. Once we gather together on the deck of a ship in the sunlight, we can see that there is no battle to be fought anymore. We can simply share stories and laugh and realize that the very thin fence that separated us was really nothing at all.
That is the trick to our jobs, the thing that keeps us going in the worst of weather. If we think that we are at war, then we always will be. But like Anthony and the German soldier Hans, if we listen with compassion and care, we may just find ourselves on the same side as everyone we treat. This is a place where humans long to be. The deep and aching loneliness of the battle loses power when we choose to sit in the sun and remember that we are the same as our patients. It is then that we have won the battle.