Radio helps old man cope with wife's death

SINGAPORE - When I first saw him, he was just another chap who had been referred to me. In his late 60s, he had weathered brows and a beard peppered with silver bristles.

He walked with a careful and purposeful gait and it took him effort to cross the clinic floor to my room - something I did without much thought.

He required surgery to relieve the high pressure that had built up within his eye due to glaucoma.

I got through the procedure with minimal fuss, and the target pressure was reached. Yet I could not get him to see well.

This bothered me no end. Initially, it was more because of my own pride. I was bothered that I was not able to add another feather to my cap and pat myself on my back for yet another successful case.

My examinations proved futile in establishing why he could not see well.

Then he missed one visit and I asked a nurse to help locate him to remind him to return for his review.

But with so much going on at work, the thought of locating him was quickly replaced by thoughts of other matters.

Then he showed up at the clinic the following week. I noticed he had not slept well and his eyes were rather red. Following the usual examination, I prodded a little further, and he looked at me straight in the eye and explained.

His wife had just died and he had been crying a lot in the days leading up to her death.

She had been ill for the past 10 years, plagued with diabetes, hypertension, kidney failure and other illnesses.

He had been faithfully tending to her over the past few years and, as a result, had been emotionally and physically drained.

He had also spent much of his meagre savings on her funeral.

I could hear the sadness in his voice, yet I could also sense his relief.

But what hit me was when he said: "Now when I go home, I hear the sound of silence and it is unbearable, and I start to cry."

The old man and his wife had only each other; there was no one else. I suddenly felt an urge to hug and hold him tight.

However, I could manage only a firm hand on his shoulder, as I looked him in the eye.

I knew how he felt. I had been there, albeit in a different way. When I went to Australia for two years to further my studies and to obtain a fellowship, I stayed alone and coming back to an empty flat had sometimes been unbearable.

I wondered then what I could say to make him feel better. Then it occurred to me that what I did for myself might work for him.

I told him to keep a radio on in the night when he was home.

The noise - be it music, news or even static - could penetrate the lonely darkness and help take away the pain of loneliness a bit.

He agreed and said he might try it.

After watching him slowly get up and leave my room, I felt saddened to know that there was one more lonely person out there who had to return to an empty, cold nest every night.

I looked forward to his next review.

One day, the nurse informed me that he had come for his next visit.

I asked her to check his vision, and found that he had gone from being able to count fingers to being able to read.

It was a huge relief for me. I felt good, and not just for my own ego - I was genuinely happy he could now see.

The review went well. I asked him about himself and he said he was better and able to see.

Just when he was about to plod out of my room, he said: "You know, I took up your idea and switched on the radio at night. Now, I don't cry any more."

That night, I drove home feeling slightly more light-hearted.

His situation reminded me that there are many others like him, who live alone, either because they are single, or have lost their loved ones, or have been abandoned by their families.

This man's experience was a timely reminder that in our quest for medical excellence, we should keep the right perspective and continue to help those in need holistically, and not just in the area of our expertise.

Patients have spiritual and mental needs too.

It has been four years and the old man can now see very well. His glaucoma is well-controlled and he always greets me with a smile.

The patient-care assistants in my clinic have banded together and we have begun a small project called Charity Begins At Home.

In this project, a few volunteers - friends and like-minded colleagues - will go to the home of a lonely elderly person and tidy it up, provide a small item such as a fan or cupboard if it is needed and then take him out for a meal.

When my colleagues and I go out for a meal, there is often far more food on the table than we can eat. So adding an extra seat and asking an elderly person to join us costs us nothing.

However, to a lonely old person, the company, the kindness and warmth bring him immeasurable joy.

So the next time you see an elderly person, do take some time to listen to him, and offer him a cup of coffee and see how it lights up his face.

It will warm your heart too.

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