By DR KENNETH D KEMP
WORDS matter. Repetitive encouragement can strengthen a child who’s lost their way but a solitary negative comment, by contrast, can incarcerate that same child in a prison of self-doubt forever. Words, over time, can also begin to lose meaning. The word Diabetes some 20 to 30 years ago evoked intense worry among patients and their loved ones. Today it’s become so commonplace, especially here in The Bahamas, that it’s no longer taken as seriously as it once was.
Patients often recount, when asked about their medical history, that they have ‘a little bit of sugar, but nothing serious’. But in today’s world, we now know patients who refuse to acknowledge the gravity of their Diabetes diagnoses will likely develop and succumb to various complications like kidney and heart disease, nerve damage, impaired circulation, blindness, even amputation and all too frequently, an untimely death.
The patient featured in today’s report has always known how serious her condition was and has been exceptionally proactive in her prescribed treatment protocol. At today’s routine visit, she recounts her life story in hopes that someone may find peace in their own struggles. Her husband gave her the nick-name Sleeping Beauty, so for this report we’ll refer to her as Aurora.
In the late 1980s, Aurora worked for one of the hotels here in Nassau. It was her first full time job and she loved her independence. It was the first time in her life she truly felt free and the joy radiated through her eyes.
Eventually she caught the attention of a young chef named Philip at the hotel and every day he’d comment on how beautiful she looked, how nice she smelled and the fantastic way she brushed her hair. Aurora didn’t take him seriously at first because she was positive that he was saying the exact same thing to every girl at the hotel. So every day she’d smile with him, tell him to be serious for once in his life and when Philip yelled out that he was serious, she’d just laugh and walk away.
Then one day, when Philip didn’t show up to work she realised how much she missed seeing him. So, the next day that he approached her, she said ‘yes’. He hadn’t even asked a question yet but he knew instinctively what the ‘‘yes’was for; she’d finally agreed to go out with him.
Philip quickly became her best friend. They felt like two halves of the same puzzle piece that fit together perfectly and even their worst days together, which were few and far between, were better than their best days apart. They made each other laugh without ever really saying much and it was the kind of laughter that hurt in your stomach and jaw but made your heart feel warm and safe.
They dated for one year before getting married. Even after they were married, every Saturday, they went on a date that lasted from breakfast to dinner, spending quality time together discussing their dreams for the future. They eventually had children and life, for a while, seemed like a fairytale. But during the Christmas holidays, Philip began vomiting blood. At first he attributed it to gas, but it occurred multiple times so Aurora became concerned and insisted he get evaluated by his doctor as soon as an appointment became available.
Philip smoked one pack of cigarettes daily since the age of 16 and he also smoked cigars regularly so his doctor suggested an endoscopy be performed. During an endoscopic exam, a long thin camera is passed through the mouth and down the throat. Aurora prepared herself for the results of his test, praying that no matter what, they’d fight it as a family and be together for as long as possible. The news was devastating. Philip had end stage esophageal cancer and because he refused chemotherapy and radiation, doctors predicted he’d only live for another year and six months.
Aurora had to be a pillar of strength for her husband and children. She told them that no day had ever been promised to any of them, pointing out she could get hit by a truck and die tomorrow, urging them to remember the power of prayer. Her Christian faith carried her through many difficult times and she relied on it constantly at this point.
Aurora made the decision to quit her job - a job she loved because it made her feel fulfilled - so that she could stay home to take care of her ailing husband. As Philip’s health deteriorated, she tended to his every need, bathing, feeding and reading to him. They could no longer spend Saturdays together dining at different venues but Aurora often joked as she blended his food daily that he just wanted to find a way to spend more time with her without spending any money.
At no point did she regret doing it or feel like it was a sacrifice or a burden. Philip was her husband and an incredibly loving and caring man who was hard working, loyal, funny and kind. So she was more than happy to be with the father of her children every day.
During this time, Aurora was diagnosed with Diabetes but ignored her own health to focus on her husband. One thing at a time, she told herself. Over the next year, Philip lost over a hundred pounds and became completely bedridden. Then one night, he began choking. Aurora suctioned and cleared his throat just as the hospital nurses had taught her. A few minutes later he began choking again. Afraid, she called for an ambulance. Philip was admitted to the hospital and the following day he died – one year, six months and one day after his diagnosis. Aurora and Philip had been married for 35 years.
While still in mourning, or in part because of it, Aurora’s blood sugar levels spiked considerably. Her son, who she encouraged as a child repeatedly with positive, uplifting words, began to fill in for his father having seen the devotion his mother gave to him throughout their marriage. He now takes her to all her doctor’s appointments knowing she had neglected her health for so long and as the years go by, she becomes more and more appreciative of the love and care he’s bestowed upon her.
She now has irreversible nerve damage in both feet, making them numb to pain. If she steps on something and develops a foot wound, it could threaten her life if it became seriously infected. Knowing this, her son checks her feet regularly. Aurora has also developed extensive damage to her eyes from glaucoma, retina damage and cataracts. She has five percent vision in one eye and 10 percent in the other. Her son has not only become the guardian of her health, he’s also become her eyes, assisting her with whatever she needs done, making her life infinitely easier.
Dame Julie Andrews, in her iconic 1964 role in the Disney classic, Mary Poppins, taught us that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Unfortunately too many spoonfuls of sugar has resulted in a global proliferation in Diabetes cases, most notably in small Caribbean nations like The Bahamas. The take home message that Aurora wanted to share with everyone is that you cannot delay treatment of your health, no matter the reason.
She also shared that despite her challenges, she gives God thanks every day. She’s grateful for her blessings because her life could be so much worse than it is right now. She encourages everyone to stay positive and to put God first in all things and through all challenges.
At the end of her visit, I escort Aurora back to the waiting area where she schedules her next appointment. As she leaves, smiling and grateful for the opportunity to spend time with friends, she wishes everyone well until we see each other again. Then as her devoted son helps her into their car and they drive off together, you can’t help but appreciate that children are our greatest legacy. It’s the source of Aurora’s immense, palpable joy and what continuously gives her the strength to smile.
• Nicknamed ‘The Prince of Podiatry’, Dr Kenneth D Kemp is the founder and medical director of Bahamas Foot and Ankle located in Caves Village, Western New Providence. He served as the deputy chairman for the Health Council for five years and he currently sits on the board of directors for the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation in his role as co-vice chairman.