I’m in the waiting room of an eye doctor with my boyfriend. As a caregiver for those you love, you never know when you may be called upon. Looking around, half of the people here are caregivers. I’m exhausted, wiped out, and can’t help but wonder if part of it is the emotional recall of taking care of my father years ago.

On his way back from a lecture and without warning, one of Athan’s retinas detached. He was rushed into emergency surgery. Two days before he was discharged, I flew into DC to pick him up at the hospital. He walked out refusing the “required” wheelchair with his head down and a big patch over one eye. Yes, that was my Athan.

One minute in perfect health. The next, in need of someone who loved him. As the Director of Biomedical Engineering for the National Science Foundation, shaping the new frontier with the most innovative medical technologies that exist today, there he was, just like everybody else, blindsided—so to speak—by an unexpected event. Apparently no one is immune to disease or genetic disposition, not even those who’ve spent their life trying to prevent it; if there’s one neutral place of equal opportunity, it’s with illness and disease.

The memory for me was just beneath the surface, never completely healed and not forgotten. As I sat in the waiting room, I realized that the caregivers I saw were doing exactly what I had done for 15 years for my own father. It was sweet, but haunting. By 8:30 I had to go to bed.

For Athan, this was a close call, but only a temporary setback to a normal life, not the beginning of a chronic illness…the beginning of the end. You never know when it’s going to hit any one of us. We can only pray that those close to us, those that love us, will care for us and keep us safe. Many of us, like myself, have no children and may not even be married. How will this group survive? Who will take care of us when we can no longer function normally? This question is pervasive and will affect a huge population that is unprepared and perhaps in denial that this day will ever actually come.

For us, it was a happy ending. But it’s just a matter of time. Even though I’m in this industry, I’m still unprepared. Just like the scientist who discovers new medical technologies isn’t immune to chronic disease.

We’re all equal in our final days facing the inevitable decline. If we don’t figure out a solution, we’ll all find ourselves alone. It was a staggering reminder that one day, in the not too distant future, I will need my own caregiver.

Later in the week, I met another caregiver. She was a retired military colonel, a meteorologist, and a harpist. She was caring—not for her own husband—but for the husband of a friend. We’re all going to have to be there for each other at one point or another. Even if we’re not related by blood, we’re bonded by the experience. Perhaps facing this challenge together while watching over our friends and loved ones, may be the way we turn back the tide of separateness. Chronic disease may end up bringing our nation together.

 

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