Short stories, Travel and Health Information
It had, as usual, been an exhausting day for me and it was now time to leave.
I had helped Sam to clear up while Lynne sat expressionless in her chair in front of the TV.
Closing the cupboard after putting away the last of the dinner plates, Sam moved towards Lynne and took her hand.
“Its time for bed, Princess” he said gently, “Sanji and I will help you”
She smiled at him and allowed him to help her up. He was not young himself, and it required an effort on his part to keep from losing his balance as he took her weight. I quickly moved across and put my left arm behind her shoulders to support her and, taking her right arm in my right hand, allowed her to lean on me as we guided her carefully to her bed. After she sat down, he knelt down in front of her, removed her slippers, put on a clean pair of socks and helped her into bed – after which he tucked her in.
Turning on the night light, he kissed her tenderly on the cheek.’
“Good night, Sam” she said, smiling up at him “Thank you. You are always so kind to me.”
We turned off the main light and walked back into the dining room. He went to the fridge, took out two bottles of beer and, handing one to me, sat down heavily on the sofa.
“It’s tough, Sanji” he sighed “Looking after Lynne is not an easy task for an old man like me”.
He smiled ruefully.
I took a sip of my beer. Sam was over eighty and not the strongest of men – yet he had been single handedly looking after his wife ever since she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease nearly ten years ago. It was only after he had finally accepted that he could not handle her care all on his own that he had agreed to approach ComfortCare and arrange for someone like me – a paid Carer, supplementing my meagre income as a Centrelink-supported university student – to come in three days a week to help him.
“How did you first meet Lynne, Sam? “I asked
His face lit up with a smile.
“In medical school, Sanji” he replied “She was a couple of years below me and I met her in the first week of term when she attended Sunday service in the university chapel. The chaplain Father Lakshman used to always invite us over to breakfast in his lodgings after service – there were no more than eight or ten undergrads in the congregation in those days – and that is how we met. She was tall and slim and easily the best looking girl in her class! Before the month was over I was walking her to and from services every Sunday. The rest as they say is history.”
He got up and walked over to the mantelpiece and brought over a photo of a much younger Lynne, shyly leaning against a pillar. “It was her smile and dimple that first attracted me” he admitted – and you can see she still has the same beautiful smile”.
I took the framed photo from him and studied it. Lynne certainly would have been a good looking girl in her twenties.
“Sam” I began, in what I thought would be the most tactful way of broaching a difficult subject, “I can see that it is becoming increasingly difficult for you to care for Lynne by yourself. Mike and I are able to come during the days – but at night, when you are alone, it must be difficult for you to help her get up out of bed.”
He looked at me for a while before he answered.
“True” he responded, “but with the nappies she wears at night she does not really need to get up to use the toilet. The only help she needs is when she wakes up – by which time one of you is here to help. And as far as food is concerned, we get all our meals from outside, so I don’t really do any cooking or cleaning myself.”
“It would have been easy, Sanji, to put her into a nursing home – the kind they euphemistically call “Supported accommodation” or “High level residential care” in this country – after her Alzheimer’s became so advanced that she couldn’t remember what she did five minutes ago. Most of my friends, even my children, advised me to do this. But as a doctor who used to visit patients in these residential care facilities, I know what nursing homes – even the best of them – are like. ”
He was silent. It took him a while to continue
“Let me tell you a story, Sanji,” he resumed “and then you might understand why I have not done the practical thing of putting her away and entrusting her care to others”
“When Lynne was a young medical student” he went on “she was not only one of the best looking girls in her year, she was also one of the smartest. And when we were both students, I thought that she would go on to specialise in one of the more difficult branches of medicine – something that required an encyclopaediac mind like Neurology or research in some field like Immunology.”
“But once we decided to get married, she subordinated her career to mine – always putting me first, encouraging me in my dream of becoming a cardiologist. In fact she decided to work in family medicine and raise a family while she pushed me to go on to specialise and do my PhD – never showing any regret in taking a back seat while she actively pushed me to succeed.”
“One time, when she was still a medical student and I had already graduated, I had gone on some exercise with the army reserve about three months previously and was back in Colombo at my usual civilian job as a trainee cardiologist at the National Hospital. I was feeling unwell and had come down with a temperature, so I had been dosing myself with Panadol and continuing to go for work. When I went to see her that evening and told her I was unwell with the flu which wasn’t getting better with Panadol, she took one look at me and said “You must be having malaria”.
“I was taken aback. True, we had been in a malarial area and admittedly I had not been conscientious in taking my anti-malaria pills. But Malaria usually affects you while you are actually within the malarial area or within a fortnight of you leaving – and it was now over three months since we had finished our training exercise.”
“Don’t be silly. Lynne” I laughed “this can’t be malaria so long after I came out of the jungles”
“She persisted. ‘Sometimes, the parasites can lie dormant for months on end and flare up. I think you should get a blood test.’ ”
“I wasn’t convinced, Sanji, but just to keep her happy I went to the lab the following day and got a blood test for malaria. Much to my surprise – and chagrin – the result came back that evening – positive!”
“If it had not been for her, I would have continued dosing myself ineffectively with Panadol and kept getting sicker and sicker while the malaria parasites destroyed all my blood cells.”
He looked at me wryly.
“And it was not just my life she saved when she was just a medical student. When we came to Australia about twenty years after we graduated, we both had to sit for an exam – the equivalent of the final year exam that medical students in Australia have to sit for to qualify as doctors. By this time I had been working as a heart specialist for many years, so I had forgotten most of the obstetrics and surgery and psychiatry that I had learned in medical school. But in order to convince the examiners that I was fit to practise in Australia, I had to pass this exam, my many years’ experience as a heart specialist counting for nothing. So I bought the latest editions of the obstetrics and gynaecology text books and read them from cover to cover – supplementing my knowledge by reading five years’ worth of review articles in the standard Obs and Gynae journals.”
“With all this effort I felt I was well prepared, and we flew to Brisbane to undertake the exam during which we were separately examined in the three major specialities of Medicine, Surgery and Obstetrics/Gynaecology. The exam was held over two days and involved us actually seeing patients, examining them and then discussing their management with the examiners. We also had to undergo a viva, where we had to face a panel of two examiners who could ask us questions covering the whole spectrum of that subject.”
“We had flown into Brisbane for the exam and I was tired after the long flight, so after dinner I got into bed, did some last minute looking over my notes for about an hour and then told Lynne that I was going to sleep. She, being the diligent student that she was, had a pile of journal articles on the desk in front of her and was going over them”.
“You should be studying some more” she admonished.
“No point, Lynne” I yawned, “I have read all that I can and covered all that I think I need to know – and if there are any gaps in my knowledge, so be it.”
“ ‘Have you read about Hormone Replacement Therapy?’ she suddenly asked me.”
“Now Hormone Replacement Therapy or HRT had come into vogue a couple of years previously. It was not something that was around when I was a student, and I did not feel the need to commence studying this new-fangled topic just for the exam.”
“Nah,” I said “they will never ask candidates about that. It is too controversial!”
“But they might just ask you something about it” she persisted “Here, read this journal article. It is only five pages long”.
“One thing I had learned about matrimony, Sanji, is that one does not disagree with one’s wife – especially at eleven o’clock in the night. So, I grudgingly accepted the proffered article, read it, reassured myself that I knew enough about the subject to adequately camouflage any gaps in my knowledge and handed it back to her.”
“Good” she said “now I’ll just ask you a few questions about the topic to make sure you know it well” – and she proceeded to quiz me for the next fifteen minutes.”
“I finally got to sleep – leaving my wife still poring over her journals.”
“Next morning we were upearly (she in fact was awake and ready before me) and we both went to the Royal Brisbane Hospital for our exam. My cases in medicine were easy (after all, my years as a specialist physician were not entirely wasted) and I managed to survive the exam in Surgery without much difficulty – but as I went in for the Obstetrics test, I could feel myself getting anxious. I had not delivered a baby or examined a pregnant woman for over fifteen years.”
“I need not have worried. The patient I was given to examine and discuss was a young woman who had diabetes complicating pregnancy – and I made a good fist of the case. Next it was time for my vivas, and I walked, looking more confident than I felt, into the room where two examiners were seated at a table. I sat on the chair front of them, politely wished them “Good Afternoon”, showed them my identity card, and waited. One of the examiners took a box which contained some cards, rummaged through them and pulled out one of the cards which I realised each had a viva question on them.”
“Well, doctor” he said, looking at me, “imagine you are a GP in a country practice in Australia and one of your patients, a lady of 45 years, comes to consult you. She asks you whether she should start on Hormone Replacement Therapy. What would you tell her?”
My heart skipped a beat. I kept a straight face, but inwardly I said a quick ‘Thank you, God” and went on to give what I am sure was a perfect answer. When I finished, the examiner who had asked me the question turned to his colleague and asked, “Les, do you want to ask anything else?” to which his colleague replied, “No, that’s fine Alastair” and turning to me said, ‘Thank you, doctor, you may go.’ ”
“And that, Sanji, is how I passed the exam that allowed me to practise medicine in this country. If Lynne had not forced me to learn about HRT that night, I would have failed – and had to repeat the stupid exam in a field of medicine which I was never going to practise anyway.”
“And it is not just in diagnosing my malaria and getting me through that vital exam that Lynne has been invaluable, Sanji. I came from a working class family – my dad owned a petrol shed and my Mum was a seamstress. It was Lynne who taught me about music and art and culture. She was a Princess in every sense of the word. I know a lot about cardiology – but everything else I learned about the rest of the world I learned from Lynne.”
“So you see, Sanji, she has not only been a good wife but also has been my teacher and my best friend for over fifty years – the person who converted this rough diamond into something a bit more polished”
“And when you have been blessed to have a teacher and a friend like this with whom to share your life, would you abandon her to a nursing home for the rest of her days just because her memory has died?”
“My only prayer is that I will be spared to look after her. I dread to imagine what would happen if I were to die before her”
He stopped talking and looked away.
I too remained silent- because there was nothing I could say.
A year has gone by since I heard Sam’s story.
A few months after that evening Lynne passed away – in her own home, cared for until the day she died by the man who loved her.
I completed my science degree at the end of that year and am now back at Monash University studying medicine as a post-graduate student.
Yesterday I drove to the Lilydale cemetery and walked through the memorial garden to find Lynne’s grave.
It was as I expected it to be – a simple black plaque with gold lettering, set into the low granite wall beside the bed of yellow roses.
The plaque said simply
‘In loving memory of Dr. Lynnette Fernando, beloved wife of Samaratunge (Sam)’
And just next to it, the edges of the two plaques almost touching each other, was a similar plaque with the words
‘ ‘In loving memory of Dr. Samaratunge (Sam) Fernando, beloved husband of Lynnette (dec)’
Sam had died a month after Lynne, his prayer that he would not predecease her having been granted by a God from whom he didn’t ask much
I stood there awhile, remembering the story that Sam had told me that night.
And I raised a silent prayer for my old friend, the gentle man who called himself Sam – and the lady he called his Princess.