The grief would come in waves, washing over him when he least expected. At times it was brought on by the winsome smile of his daughter, regardless of the turmoil in his life. Other times it was triggered by the day-to-day fight to save his first wife.
For Jeffrey Boyd, MD, watching Pat Boyd endure chronic illness for 18 years before she died, left him devastated. After all, he was not just her husband. He was also her caregiver.
Humility and reflection
“I cannot say that Pat and I were always successful in dealing with the illness,” recalled the psychiatrist and Chairman of Waterbury Hospital’s Behavioral Health Department. “I came away from [the experience] feeling humbled and that I was not as good a caregiver as I should have been.”
Pat Boyd’s last years weren’t easy. She had heart problems, two strokes and her kidneys failed leaving her on dialysis. She had diabetes, went blind and even had to have both her legs amputated above the knee. She died in 1985 at age 50.
Still, her husband tried to ease her anguish.
Once during one of Pat’s hospitalizations, he sneaked their very young daughter in to visit her mother by disguising the youngster as a patient in a wheel chair. The pair succeeded in their late-night reunion.
It is a bright memory interwoven in a time fraught with pain, a recollection that still brings tears to the doctor’s eyes.
“My wife suffered so much and for so long,” said Dr. Boyd. “I couldn’t take watching her go through it. For a decade, we didn’t know when Pat would die.”
A resolve to understand chronic illness
That nearly two-decade struggle left Boyd searching for answers. He resolved to learn how it was that some people remained optimistic even with continual illness. So he began to research, interviewing people who lived with persistent poor health. He talked to sick people, their families, physicians, nurses and clergy.
His findings are being compiled into a book-in-progress to be titled, “Joyful Living Despite Chronic Illness.” He hopes to finish the book next year.
“Chronic illness is like having a life career,” said Dr. Boyd, who is also an ordained Episcopalian minister. “You can succeed or fail at it.”
What he discovered about people with unremitting health problems renewed his faith in life.
“We are a health-oriented society,” he said. “People are often uncomfortable around other people with prolonged illness. They don’t know what to say because they are living their lives in a different world. People with ever-present illness don’t know how they will feel tomorrow. They have to live moment by moment. Yet, a number of them remain upbeat.”
“People need to realize what life is really about,” Dr. Boyd said. “Is it having money, a powerful career or good vacations? Or is it about the small blessings?”
Sharing the caregiver’s load
A framed picture of an angel sits on the desk of Dr. Boyd’s office at Waterbury Hospital. A satellite map of the Holy Land as seen from space hangs on one wall. A book on successful aging is piled with other volumes in a corner.
“Society is aging as a whole,” he said. “And the risk of acquiring a chronic illness increases as you get older.”
Either way, the aging of the baby boomers does not have to be filled with pessimism, he said. “There is a decline in the level of disability because of all of the medical advances and new medicines,” he said. “We are certainly less impaired by illness than our parents were.”
Dr. Boyd said that the other side of the issue is how caregivers deal with having someone they love suffer from a chronic illness.
“Caregivers have to share the load, but they have to take care of their own needs and keep in touch with a network of people who face similar problems,” he said. “Some people get depleted by caring for a sick family member, but others become strengthened.”
By Brenda Marks. Published with permission.
Dr. Boyd is a psychiatrist, practicing in Connecticut. The ordained Episcopalian minister also writes and lectures on coping with chronic illness. This article was posted with permission from Waterbury Hospital. For permission to publish in any way, contact the Public Relations Dept.