DEATH BY EMOTION (PART 2)
One Sunday afternoon I was on call when Millie called the house. “Doc, we got a home death we need you to go see.”
At that time in North Carolina, if someone didn’t die in a medical facility, the medical examiner had to be called to the scene, just to be sure there was no foul play. So I left our home on Hospital Hill and drove up Deep Creek Valley.
The old ramshackle home was located on a dirt road just up “Toot Holler.” A Swain County sheriff’s car was parked perilously at the edge of the road—leaning menacingly toward the small creek ten feet below. I parked—in the middle of the road—and walked up to the house. Deputy Sheriff Dan Rogers met me at the door.
“Doc, sure looks natural. This ole lady’s been up here all alone for years. Hardly ever left the house or had any visitors.”
As I ducked to enter the undersized door, he followed me, continuing his soliloquy. “She had a friend who came up once in a while. It was her friend who found her here this evening and called us.”
And there she was. Anne Smith. Her porcelainlike skin was white and smooth. She had surprisingly few wrinkles for someone born well over a half century earlier. I suspected she saw very little sunlight in her days. She was stone-cold and stiff as a board. Rigor mortis had set in.
There was no sign of foul play. No indication of a struggle or a seizure. By all outward signs she had died quietly, peacefully. As I examined her, I ran through possible causes of death in my mind. Heart attack? Heart irregularity? Infection? Stroke? Brain hemorrhage? Poisoning? All were possible, but only an autopsy could tell for sure. As I was contemplating the possibilities, the deputy lobbed a theory I hadn’t seriously considered.
“I’ll tell ya what she done died of, Doc,” he began slowly, almost thoughtfully. “This here woman died of loneliness.” He stood there looking down at the body, rubbing his chin whiskers. “You can put whatever you want on that death certificate, but I’ll tell you what, son, she done died of loneliness. I see it all the time.”
He turned and walked out.
The autopsy results arrived at my office the next week. The conclusion? Anne had arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and very early and very mild coronary artery disease. She also had stones in her gallbladder, fibroids in her uterus, and benign tumors in both of her breasts. There were signs in her brain of mini-strokes, and her teeth were in poor shape. But there was no obvious cause of death. No evidence of a massive stroke or heart attack or poisoning or infection. The pathologist declared it to be a natural death. I guessed that the medical cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia—her heart had developed an abnormal and irregular beat that proved to be fatal.
But I suspected in my heart of hearts that the deputy sheriff was right.
The next day Pastor Ken Hicks and I had lunch together at Super Swain Drugs. I shared with Ken my experience with the deputy and Anne Smith.
“It just makes sense,” Ken commented. He had completed seminary the year before and had come to Bryson City Presbyterian Church, his first church, with his wife, Tina. Ken’s dad was an internist and also a well-known lay minister.
“Walt, what we were taught in seminary—and what I’m finding to be true—is that when people feel loved, nurtured, appreciated, valued, and cared for, they are much more likely to be happy.”
I nodded. “I think you’re right, Ken. In my psychology course in medical school, we were taught that people who are involved in social groups have a much lower risk of getting sick. And if they do become ill, they have a much greater chance of surviving.”
“That’s interesting. We were taught pretty much the same thing in seminary. In fact, one of my professors taught us that if we wanted to stay healthy in the pastorate, we needed to be involved in healthy relationships. I think he was right.”
We each took a bite of our sandwiches, and Ken continued. “I think the Creator understood the problems that can result from being alone. I remember my Hebrew class. We were studying in Genesis where it says God formed man from the dust and breathed life into him. Just after he created man, God said it was not good for the man to be alone. Walt, the Hebrew word translated ‘alone’ means separated, or lonely or alienated. But even more interesting to me is that it can mean the man was incomplete. It’s almost like God is telling us that if we’re lonely, we can’t be complete.”
I chewed slowly—on both the sandwich and his words. Before I could swallow either, he continued. “I learned another interesting fact. Many Hebrew people consider aloneness to be the exact opposite of really living. To them, encouraging social relationships in the family and in the community is critical. For them, true life is not individual; it’s social. It’s living in harmony with others. That’s why Tina and I feel fellowship and small groups are such a vital part of the church’s mission in the community.”
I thought about his words for a moment and then reflected on some of my medical school training. “Ken, it sounds like this is one area where theology and medicine agree. I was taught that loneliness can cause psychiatric disorders and mental breakdowns, and even physical illness and premature death.”
“Makes sense to me, Walt. Basically the Bible teaches that real, authentic living occurs when we share life and love with God, family, and community.”
I nodded and continued with my lunch. What Ken said made a lot of sense. It certainly explained why those patients I saw each day who were healthy spiritually and consistently involved in a faith community seemed to be so much healthier physically and emotionally than those who avoided friendship and fellowship.
In fact, I would see another prime example that very night in the emergency room.
TO BE CONTINUED
PAST STORIES FROM BRYSON CITY TALES
- The Murder (Part 1); (Part 2); (Part 3)
- The Arrival (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The Hemlock Inn (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The Grand Tour (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The Interview (Part 1); (Part 2); (Part 3)
- Settling In (Part 1); (Part 2)
- First-Day Jitters (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Emergency (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The Delivery (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The “Expert” (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The Trial (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Shiitake Sam (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Wet Behind the Ears (Part 1); (Part 2); (Part 3)
- Lessons in Daily Practice (Part 1) — Anal Angina; (Part 2); (Part 3); (Part 4)
- White Lies
- The Epiphany (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Becoming Part of the Team (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Monuments (Part 1); (Part 2)
- My First Home Victory (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Fisher of Men (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Fly-Fishing (Part 1); (Part 2)
- Something Fishy (Part 1); (Part 2)
- A Good Day at the Office
- An Evening to Remember
- Another New Doc Comes to Town
- ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (Part 1); (Part 2)
- A Surprising Gift
- The New Year (Part 1); (Part 2)
- The Home Birth (Part1); (Part 2); (Part 3)
- The Showdown (Part1); (Part 2); (Part 3)
- The Initiation (Part 1); (Part 2); (Part 3)
- Home at Last (Part 1); (Part 2); (Part 3)
© Copyright WLL, INC. 2017. This blog provides a wide variety of general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from your regular physician. If you are concerned about your health, take what you learn from this blog and meet with your personal doctor to discuss your concerns.