Portland, Maine — One of the neat things about every job I've had is the friendship that has always developed from unexpected sources. Of course, co-workers and business associates have become great friends and acquaintances. But serendipitous relationships have happened from places that aren't expected.
My current assignment is no exception. Overseeing five Assisted Living Memory Care Communities in Illinois and Texas the last few months has led to meeting many family members of residents whose spouse or parent has some form of dementia or Alzheimer's. I've come to really respect what these people go through, having a loved one saddled with one of these dreaded diseases.
Among these amazing people I've met is Bruce. He is married to Tina, a hospital-based registered nurse. Tina has FTD, a fast growing and devastating form of dementia that I had never heard of before. Frontotemporal Dementia is the most devastating and least understood form of dementia. With FTD, there is progressive nerve cell loss in the brain's frontal lobes or temporal lobes.
FTD is the No. 1 form of dementia under age 60.
Bruce is a retired high school teacher and an avid Chicago Bears fan. We have become very good friends. I let him know early on, that I'm a Detroit Lions fan. "It's no problem Ted,” he told me. "I only distain Green Bay Packer Fans. There's only two Chicago Bear games a year that are important to me - when the Bears play the Packers."
I love to hear him talk about some of his experiences as a teacher and I can tell he was very effective at teaching and molding many young lives. One of my favorite stories is one he has told me many times. During the first day of class when he would be giving some indications of what the students could expect during the year, he would always ask for any Green Bay Packer fans to raise their hands. To any unsuspecting victims, he would tell them that they didn't need to bother studying any assignments - as they would be failing the class anyway! Bruce has told me this story so many times I'm starting to wonder if it isn't true!
Recently Bruce returned from a weekend trip to Wisconsin. "Ted, I want you to know I went to the full-service car wash today on my way here. I wanted to make sure I got all the Packer dust off my vehicle before parking in your lot."
Bruce has given me a tour of Tina's room and interspersed between family pictures are several pictures of light houses. Tina and Bruce both love light houses and they have a picture of the Portland Headlight (the most famous lighthouse in the United States).
"We took that picture several decades ago on a lighthouse tour-trip we took up the coast of Maine.”
As they worked their way up the coast toward Bar Harbor (there were only three or four motels in the town back then, he says), Tina, who was pregnant, needed to make a rest stop. It was after dark and they were having a hard time finding a gas station open.
They stopped at a closed station to try the station's outside restroom door that faced the road. To no avail. The door was locked.
As they were walking back toward their car, a Maine state trooper happened by and stopped after seeing the distress on their faces.
After learning of their predicament, he said "follow me" and proceeded to walk them back to the restroom door. He then pulled a key out of his pocket that opened the door.
"We never forgot that wonderful Maine hospitality" Bruce told me.
As Tina's condition progresses down its insidious, inevitable path, Bruce tells me the caregivers at our community make such a difference. Almost every day he comes in like clockwork at 11 a.m. to see Tina, bringing snacks or any token of appreciation for the caregivers.
In the four months I have known Tina and Bruce, I have seen her condition deteriorate. Bruce's commitment to Tina has not wavered. His regular visits with Tina — who can no longer feed herself — are in stark contrast to some residents who don't see their loved ones as often.
Before meeting Bruce and Tina, I thought FTD only stood for Florists' Transworld Delivery. Now that I've learned about Frontotemporal Dementia I have so much empathy for any family touched by this terrible disease.
When I asked Bruce, what it was that motivated him to come every day to see Tina, there was a very long pause.
With tears welling up in his eyes, he said, "It's very simple Ted, I believe in keeping the promise I made: "Til death do us part.”
Theodore Lewis is former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a healthcare consulting business based out of Portland, Maine. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.