11: Best in Show

11: Best in Show

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Best in Show

A Note from Joan

I met Dr. Sam Schwartz about 20 years ago and have gone to him for nutrition advice and chiropractic help ever since. Sam is the kind of doctor who takes a very holistic approach to treating his patients. He is a gentle, soft-spoken, compassionate individual who treats your body, your mind and your soul. When Sam’s wife, Diane, was diagnosed with lung cancer and given less than a year to live, Sam’s alternative treatments kept her alive far longer than the doctors ever imagined.

Recently I asked Sam what he found most difficult about being a family caregiver and what advice he would give to others. He said that even though he is a profoundly optimistic person, he found there was a tendency to “be depressed or even physically sick” because you feel guilty acting vibrant, perky and happy around the person for whom you are caring. When I heard Sam’s observation I knew immediately that this was probably something many other caregivers experienced. Becoming aware of why this happens is the first step to protecting your own wellness.

When you look at caregivers overall, studies show that the stress of family caregiving can impact a person’s immune system for up to three years after their caregiving ends, thus increasing their chances of developing a chronic illness themselves.

Seventy-two percent of family caregivers report not going to the doctor as often as they should and 55 percent say they skip doctor’s appointments for themselves. Sixty-three percent of caregivers report having poorer eating habits than non-caregivers and 58 percent indicate worse exercise habits than before caregiving responsibilities.

Many caregivers report symptoms of depression. More than 1 in 10 (11 percent) of family caregivers report that caregiving has caused their physical health to deteriorate. Family caregivers experiencing extreme stress have been shown to age prematurely. This level of stress can take as many as 10 years off a family caregiver’s life.

In light of these statistics, I asked Dr. Sam Schwartz to share his caregiving journey with you.

My life really began in the spring of 1967 when I was 22 years old. I met 18-year-old Diane Christine Spano in May and for the next 41 years, each day was filled with joy.

It was love at first sight. We met in Ann Arbor, Michigan, both working at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital - University of Michigan Medical Center. Diane was a desk clerk on the neurosurgery floor, noticeably cute and perky in her gold smock and dark blue skirt. I was a respiratory therapist dressed in a starched white jacket and tie, looking professional and “geeky” with my large solid-rimmed thick glasses.

We met in the cafeteria on one of the Saints Days. The normally busy cafeteria was silent; the nurses and workers chose to go to the chapel or the garden to pray. I saw this pretty gal sitting all alone, looking like Sophia Loren, and I said, “You are the only one who is not in the chapel. Why?” Then I quickly said, “I’m Jewish. What’s your excuse?” She loved my line. It made her laugh and she lit up the world with her smile. I could not get that smile out of my mind the rest of the day. We went out that night and were never apart after that. By the fourth day of our courtship, her mom and dad joined us on a date. We became double-date buddies and we often included her younger sister and brother too; we became an instant family.

We had a whirlwind three months of courtship from meeting till marriage, and we heard plenty of warnings about how it wouldn’t last. How could a marriage last between a Midwestern Polish Geek and a Saucy Italian Dish from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn? I guess we found the secret ingredient was not Italian food, but unconditional love and commitment to family values. Now, let’s not be mistaken—the Italian food did play a vital role. I remember toasting the family at our wedding and saying that it was not just love at first sight, but love at first bite.

Our early years were spent putting each other through college, often taking classes together and sharing our strengths. Diane was the ultimate reader and interpreter of the written word, and I never read a book in my life. But I loved going to classes and I had a great memory for the spoken word. So, she did the reading and I did the class attending, and after every test we always ranked #1 and # 2 in every class. She was #1 a lot more than I, my smart little devil. Diane became an RN and gave Florence Nightingale a run for her money. She later continued her education to become a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, giving Freud and Jung a run for theirs. I went on to advanced degrees, eventually building my life as a chiropractor. Without her encouragement and support I would not have gone the distance.

Diane and I were the couple that Walt Disney created. I remember us watching the movie Pretty Woman, and when we heard Julia Roberts utter the famous line, “I want the fairy tale,” Diane looked at me and said, “Sammy, I got the fairy tale.”

In the fall of 1980, Robyn came along after 13 long years of trying to conceive. Life was great. Then came December 24, 1996, the day before Diane’s 48th birthday. Diane’s doctor called and told us to “come over now.” In the office we heard some of the worst words imaginable: “Diane, you have lung cancer.” The doctor walked down the hall with me as Diane was dressing and advised I “count her time in weeks and months, not years.”

Diane beat those odds into the ground. She was not only a survivor—she went beyond surviving. She held up through chemo and radiation like no other. She lived 12 years, not weeks and months. As time went on, I often found myself feeling bad, especially when everything was “good.” I often became sad when the day called for “happy.” I felt guilty for feeling healthy and for not having to watch what I ate or drank or wore. I felt guilty when I washed and brushed my hair, for Diane had no hair to fuss over. I morphed into a pretender for I did not want Diane to know how I felt.

Deep inside, I felt she was pretending too. We morphed from being ourselves to being pretenders.

Diane and I had always taken pride in our appearance. Not only to look good for each other, but also for our clients. As her illness progressed and she no longer had “the look,” I too lost interest. I gained a lot of weight, stopped exercising, and my grooming was not what it used to be. I felt guilty looking good when she could not anymore. I felt that I shouldn’t exercise because she couldn’t, and besides I should be with her every free moment. It’s hard to worry about a treadmill when your soul mate is throwing up in the bathroom. I felt undeserving of good health, exercise, good grooming, or fun, for my Diane could no longer enjoy these things. Guilt and pretense—hardly chicken soup for the soul.

I cared for Diane with love and support 24/7. Being a Doctor of Chiropractic, of course, I am good with the laying on of hands for comfort and healing. Each day, I worked on her muscles and joints to make her comfortable. Sunday mornings were our favorite sessions. From 10 a.m. until noon, I did a long session of deep massage from head to toe, followed by gentle manipulation of each joint.

While doing so, we listened to this radio program called The Italian House Party. This show was full of folklore, ethnic music and commercials for local Italian merchants. Diane would really “get into it” and sing along with each song and add her own stories and memories about growing up in her Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. I loved her singing and stories and I could sense the healing as I massaged her and she revisited the time when her life was good and safe.

After her passing, I was able to make sense of some of the lessons I learned. The most important is that guilt is not required as an expression of a caregiver’s love. Unhappiness is not required as an expression of caregiver love. Caregiving is the ultimate expression of love.

In the final days, I knew Diane was onto me. She became my caregiver down the stretch; she had given me permission with her eyes to not feel guilty. Words were not required. She looked into my soul. She gave me her approval with her eyes.

When boarding a plane and preparing for takeoff, we all hear these words: “If the cabin pressure drops suddenly, an oxygen mask will drop down. It is important that you put your mask on first before helping others in your party.” Well, this says it all: take care of yourself or you will not be able to help those you love. This became my Mantra and Vision once I caught on and once Diane let me know that it was okay to take care of myself.

Diane’s last two months were in the hospital and Robyn or I was with her every precious minute. On our last evening together, we talked about the day ahead, Valentine’s Day. Robyn had all kinds of plans, presents and all. I still have the lovely card that I never got to give Diane. Even in her last hours, she was laughing away. Little did we know that when we were watching the Westminster Dog Show that it would be our last TV show. Not knowing this, we were being silly—barking and growling and pawing at each other. I remember my words to her as she fell asleep for the last time: “My love, you are best in show.”

~Dr. Sam Schwartz

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