What We Live For: A Caregiver’s Message For The Holiday Season logo

The following is a guest post from Rob Harris. Rob’s wife is a two-time cancer survivor. Rob has been with her to assist in her care throughout her journey with cancer. We’d like to thank Rob for sharing his thoughts on the holiday season with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance from the unique perspective of a caregiver.

A husband, father, caregiver

My name is Rob Harris. I am a husband, a father (to two Army officers, one currently stationed in Afghanistan) and human resources professional. What do I do in my spare time? I am a caregiver, a caregiver coach, and a soon-to-be published author, with my books geared to helping those that are caregivers to loved ones.

Having been a caregiver to my wife, a two-time cancer survivor, I encountered many obstacles along the way, especially during her more recent battle with a very deadly form of cancer.

As is the case with most caregivers, I was exposed to many mental, emotional, and physical challenges. This time of year, however, one in particular stands out.

The holiday season can be an incredibly emotionally traumatic time for many, especially those who are not feeling well enough to enjoy it due to a debilitating illness.

For me, I knew when her oncologist informed her she would be a hospital in-patient during what was, for her, the “happiest time of the year,” I witnessed her spirit utterly deflate. What’s more, the reason she had to be hospitalized was to receive another cycle of extremely debilitating chemotherapy.

A Season of Challenges

When she feels well, my wife, who is employed by the American Cancer Society, lives for the holiday season. Her level of excitement is infectious. Along with being one of the kindest human beings to ever walk the planet, one of her most endearing qualities is that she never allows her inner-child to fade. She enjoyed everything the holiday represents: happy times with family, friends and especially children, shopping for holiday presents, baking cookies, decorating the house and Christmas tree, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and “The Grinch That Stole Christmas”, and all else that encompasses the annual Yuletide festivities.

For that reason, I listened with trepidation when our oncologist announced we would be spending the week before Christmas in the hospital, with my wife receiving another physically debilitating round of chemotherapy.

If allowed to fester, gloom and dejection are inevitable. Is it unavoidable? That’s difficult to say. As a caregiver, I knew that a patient’s optimistic state of mind is essential in combating the physiological and physiological assault caused by the chemical cocktail that courses through one’s body in an effort to save their life.

Upon completion of a chemotherapy cycle, a patient has to expel the majority of the drugs from their system before being released from the hospital to return home. Based on the damage chemotherapy was causing to her kidneys, my wife was unable to clear the drugs from her system in a customary timeframe. As a result, we found our stays at the Moffitt Cancer Center were typically extended by several days.

Because I work for an employer who is very compassionate, I was able to live with my wife every night she spent in the hospital.

Therefore, when our oncologist broke the news to us, we had a fairly good idea we would be spending at least the week before and likely Christmas Day in the hospital. This, obviously, was not well received by my better half. Tears were immediately shed.

While You Were Sleeping

While we all have our preconceived notions as to what proper hospital decorum should be, I had already gained a reputation on the oncology floor as being somewhat of a prankster, at the very least, unpredictable. I believe that every day should be filled with fun and laughter, even during some fairly dire situations. The doctors and nurses were used to my antics. They expected me to do something bizarre and I did my best not to disappoint.

I went to the nurses and explained my plan. They told the doctors. Nobody objected. All systems were “go”.

With the deadly chemicals coursing through her body, my wife fell into a deep, sound sleep. Without her knowledge, I went shopping at the local Target store. I quickly made my purchases and raced back to our hospital room.

For the next 3 hours, while my wife slept, I decorated our room from top-to-bottom. I began with the door to our hospital room, decorating it in Christmas wrapping paper. I even included ribbon and a large bow. Next, I turned her Intravenous (IV) pole into a makeshift Christmas tree. It was covered in tinsel and unbreakable Christmas tree ornaments. Next, I hung colorful, blinking lights along the walls and ceiling. The final step was to insert a Christmas music CD into my laptop computer.

When my wife awoke, the expression on her face was priceless. She had a grin that could not be removed from her face, even when suffering from the debilitating effects of the chemotherapy. She smiled, laughed and the sadness that engulfed her magically disappeared.

We had a room full of visitors, mostly hospital employees who wanted to see our decorations. It cheered them up, as well. What made it even more rewarding was how happy it made my wife when unexpected guests visited with her.

Each day, she had to walk around the hallways for exercise. The reaction we received as I maneuvered her IV pole in one hand and held my laptop computer in the other while Christmas carols played from the inserted CD put smiles on most faces, including medical staff, caregivers and patients alike. Several long-term hospital employees shared they had never seen a in IV pole decorated like a Christmas tree.

What began as an emotionally distressing event, turned into one of the most memorable and enjoyable holidays we had spent together.

Suffering from a significant illness during the festive holiday season can lead to depression for both the patient and the caregiver if you let it. However, with a little creative thinking and a willingness to make compromises, the experience can turn into a truly enjoyable time of year.

A Caregiver’s Holiday Guide

If at home with your patient, consider the following in order to best prepare for, and enjoy the holidays:

Solicit family and friends to assist you with your planning and preparation activities.

  • Shopping for the list of gifts that the patient wishes to give to family members.
  • Gift wrapping.
  • House cleaning, cooking and even entertaining.
  • Decorating of the house (inside and out). If you explain how cheerful it will make the house for all those who live there and visit, the odds are many will be willing to assist. If family and friends aren’t available, turn to neighbors, organizations and anyone else with a big heart.
  • Have everyone you know send the patient Holiday cards. Place all cards received in a very visible location so your loved one can gaze upon them often.
  • If it will make the care recipient happy, schedule visits from all those family members and friends that can add to the occasion.
  • Have a list of presents that others can buy to lift the spirits of the patient when gifts are exchanged. They can include essential for hospital stays, such as moisturizer and breath mints, to items that will occupy the patient’s mind. CD players and CD’s, DVD players and DVD’s, books and book readers (Kindle, Nook, etc.), cards, magazines and jigsaw puzzles are all possible gifts.

While it will be difficult to replicate past holiday celebrations, every effort made to create a joyful and celebratory ambiance at home will assist in improving or maintaining the patient’s positive mindset during the holiday season.

Have a Happy Holidays Season everyone, from!