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Percy: What Dying People Like

 Mary Fennell Lyles, MD
Mary Fennell Lyles, MD

Affiliation with the Medical School: Faculty: Internal Med-Gerontology

Place of Birth:
New Orleans, LA

Where You Grew Up: Jackson, MS

College and Medical School Attended: St Louis University, University of Mississippi School of Medicine

Major in College: Biology 

Dr. Mary Fennell Lyles

I was in a terrible mood in the spring of 1979.  I was newly pregnant and having uncontrollable spells of nausea and vomiting.  There was a pile of charts on my desk awaiting dictation and I had just seriously damaged them.  I was contemplating what I ought to do next when the phone rang.  The caller was one of my favorite nurses from the Forsyth County visiting nurse association.  She told me the story of an old, widowed man named Percy.  She wanted me to take him on as a home care patient and assured me that it wouldn't be such a hard task because he wasn't going to live much longer.  He had end-stage multiple myleoma.  His disease had been complicated by so many rib fractures that he was now bed bound and in terrible pain.  Reluctantly, I agreed and she gave me directions to his home.

I was pleased to see that he lived near Old Salem.  I was a bit puzzled by the "Condemned" sign nailed to one of the columns on his front porch, but I just kept going.  After I knocked, a friendly gray haired lady answered and invited me in.  I stood in what had once been an elegant parlor, which was now transformed into a very Spartan sick room with a hospital bed along one side. I met Percy, examined him, and advised him that I needed to start some pain medicine for him.  He immediately refused.  He said he had important things to do and he couldn't afford to have his "mind messed up" by any medicine I might prescribe. Feeling very frustrated, I left, but told him I would return.  This same exchange occurred over the course of several visits until he began to tell his story.  He was in the midst of securing a guardian for his adult mentally retarded daughter.  He assured me that once he settled the matter, then and only then, it would be OK for him to die.  I became more frustrated as I saw him in terrible pain and as he had more fractures just from turning over in his bed.  Finally, I told him that I wasn't going to return unless he allowed me to do something for him.  I must have appeared more serious, because he answered right away.  He asked me to get someone to come to his home to read scripture to him.  Hospice was a fledgling group of just a few people then.  I called their coordinator.  She told me that there was a long list of volunteers who were eager to do this work.  I felt good that I had finally gotten something done.

I returned two days later to find a very cachectic Percy grinning from ear to ear.  The first thing he did was to thank me over and over.  He would not stop and finally I asked him what on earth he was thanking me for.  He kept saying "you know."  Clearly, I did not know.  Finally, he said "the women." I still didn't get it.  He eventually revealed that two young women who were ministerial students from a nearby college had paid him daily  visits.  One held his hand, while the other read him all the scriptural passages that he requested.  He went on to say "I may be old, I may not see too well and I may be dying, but I still know a beautiful woman when I see one."  The two beautiful women came back every day until the day Percy died.

Percy finally got all the guardianship papers signed and filed.  The woman who was caring for him and who had been a stand in mother for his daughter was now officially her guardian.  Percy finally agreed to take some pain medicine and could now at least talk without grimacing and groaning.  Over the next few days, he grew more lethargic and then gradually became obtunded.  With his dear friend, his daughter and “the beautiful women” at his side, he drew his last breath. 

In the 31 years since my dealings with Percy, many things have changed.  His house was sold to a young couple, who transformed it into a beautiful dwelling.  The Hospice movement has thrived and I have continued to treat many dying people.  I think that Percy would be proud to know how well his lesson on what dying people like has helped me to know better how to live.

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Last Updated: 07-14-2010
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