He had never had a sleep problem before, not when his girlfriend had died, nor with either one of his knee replacements. Nevertheless, by the time he came to my office he had not slept well for over a week. He told my PA that he did not feel that he had slept at all and asked if there was anything she could do. As he was over 80 years old she proceeded with caution, giving him a low dose of a short acting sleep aid. She gave him 5 pills, hoping that it would be enough for him to get back on schedule.
It wasn’t. He was back in the office 6 days later. He saw me on this return visit and he told me that the medicine had done nothing for him, that he had not slept for a minute in almost two weeks. Given that he was alert enough to drive to the office and have a conversation I knew his report was not entirely accurate and that he had to be sleeping at least a few hours each night. Still, I was certain he was not sleeping well and was truly suffering.
I inquired into why he was not sleeping well and received the same explanation he had given my PA a few days earlier. He was worried about his dog. She had recently been diagnosed with a serious medical condition impacting her adrenal glands. She would need life-long hormone treatments which, at $100 a month, were beyond what he could afford. She was “just a dog” but she was his only companion and he did not know what he could do for her or how he would do without her. He was distraught and worried and had been lying awake at night wondering what to do.
It did not require a medical education to recognize that his problem was more social than medical and I began a search for solutions. It seemed to me that there had to be some way for him to get help paying the dog’s medical bills. I asked him if he had talked to the vet about any charities. He had, and the one charity that he had called told him they were unable to help. The charity only provided one-time grants and did not pay for ongoing treatment.
“Do you have children?” I asked, thinking that perhaps they could help.
“I have four,” he replied, going on to tell me that one of them, a son, lived nearby.
“Can they help?” I asked, “It would only be $25 a month for each of them to help.”
He seemed reluctant to ask for help so I offered encouragement. “You do not have a sleep problem,” I said, “You have a dog problem. You don’t need a sleeping medication, you need help paying for your dog’s medication. You should ask for help.” He remained hesitant.
An unexpected thought came to my mind. I do not know from whence it came, whether it was the Spirit of God or temporary insanity, but I went along with it. I reached into my wallet and removed a $50 bill. “Here is half of next month’s prescription for your dog. I want you to take it and go home and ask your son for the other half. Then call me next week and let me know how you are doing.”
A week later he called as I had asked. His son had agreed to pay for his dog’s medications, and he was sleeping well. The message brought a smile to my face and warmth to my heart. I had made a difference in the life of a lonely old man. The type of difference I had always hoped to achieve as a Family Doctor.
His story reminds me again that caring is the most important part of medical care, and that sometimes being a friend to someone is every bit as important as being their doctor.
PS- I was hesitant to share this post as some might think it self-serving, but his story was a great encouragement to me. It is a reminder of the importance of kindness and my need to be kind whenever I can, as well as a reason to reflect on the many times I was not kind or generous and instead rationalized my indifference. The Old Testament Proverb, "Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act" should guide all of us. When someone we know needs help and we are in a place to give it, giving help should be the expected and not the exceptional response. A worthy goal for all of us.