Once in a great while, your path intersects with someone who enters your heart and never leaves again. I got into a conversation on Facebook this week about a young man who did just that when I worked in hand therapy at a hospital two decades ago. Patrick truly impacted my life. I found this article I wrote about him and thought I’d share it with you today.
Because some people should never, ever be forgotten.
Patrick Coffee and I were an unlikely pair – a stodgy middle-aged woman and a hip young man barely out of his teens – but a special bond formed between us from the moment we met. He began as my patient, but he quickly became my friend.
In July 1995, I was working as an occupational therapist specializing in hand injuries and had just transferred to a new hospital. One day in the hallway, an electric wheelchair whizzed by. It was driven by a friendly thin fellow, who gave me a “howdy” and a huge smile as he passed. Then later that afternoon, he motored into my clinic area as a new patient. That’s how I first met Patrick.
He told me he had been a happy, active boy growing up, the youngest in a large family. He was involved in many sports and school activities before being diagnosed with leukemia at age 14. At 16, in order to save his life, Patrick received a bone marrow transplant from his brother. Nine months later, as he was starting to regain his strength, Patrick began showing symptoms of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD).
The transplanted bone marrow was slowly and painfully rejected, and Patrick’s body became a physiological battleground for the next eight years. It was during his seventh year post-op that we met.
When Patrick zipped into my life at age 23, his spirit radiated God’s grace, although his appearance was rather startling. GVHD affects all parts of the body: internal organs, skin, joints, muscles … everything. Patrick’s skin looked like it had been severely burned, and his face was swollen and distorted from the steroids his doctors prescribed. My job was to mobilize Patrick’s “frozen” arms and hands so he could function as independently as possible for as long as possible.
Patrick and I had long, meaningful talks about our families, our dreams, and the mysteries of life while I tried to bend and straighten his stiff joints and exercise his atrophied muscles. He never complained, although movement was painful and his skin peeled off in sheets from contact with my hands.
When he learned that I was a piano teacher on the side, Patrick confided that it had always been his dream to play the piano. I couldn’t help but think, “Oh, my – it’s a little late for that,” as I eyed his severely contracted fingers, wrists, and elbows. But his wistfully whispered heart’s desire wouldn’t leave me. I laid in bed many restless nights, trying to figure out how to make his dream come true. There was no possible way he could be positioned to play a normal piano. But that didn’t mean his dream had to die.
God specializes in impossible. So I prayed for creative inspiration.
After a few unsuccessful efforts, I found a way to adapt an electric keyboard on a raised platform to accommodate his disabilities. Since he couldn’t actively extend his fingers, he used his thumbs to help extend the two working digits on each hand from underneath. It was awkward and slow going at first, but he persisted until he could play the scales and simple tunes I taught him as part of his therapy. His eyes absolutely sparkled the day I offered to teach him some “real” songs for a Christmas recital, and his first two choices were Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and “Joy to the World.”
How very fitting for a young man whose heart radiated such joy!
Patrick grew more and more excited as the day of the recital grew near. Together we prepared invitations to send to his family, friends, and the hospital staff. He delighted us all when he wheeled into the clinic on the recital morning in a rented tux. We had erected a huge banner proclaiming it “Patrick Coffee Day” and had gone all out on fancy, ornate decorations and finger foods. The turnout was wonderful and Patrick beamed the whole time. He played beautifully and the audience responded enthusiastically.
I’ll never forget the look of pride and, yes, joy on his face that day. God knew what fulfilled dreams can do for a person.
Patrick attended the local community college, one class at a time, and was an A student. He employed classmates to take notes for him and write down his verbal answers on tests, since he was unable to use his gnarled fingers to hold a pen. He was politically active and often said that his goal was to become governor one day. He spoke of the future positively and often.
Although he had researched GVHD and knew his prognosis was poor, Patrick chose to trust the Lord with each day as it came and live it to the fullest. He did not dwell on his disabilities but used his remaining abilities to help others. All the other patients loved him and looked forward to seeing him because of his positive attitude and the genuine love and care he extended them. He would gladly sit and listen as others described their problems, tenderly sympathizing and encouraging them on a heart-to-heart level.
He had a gift for making each person feel special and worthwhile.
One patient, Brenda, was a gruff, unsmiling ex-motorcyclist who had been hardened by life. She couldn’t hold a job because of a severe elbow injury (incurred during a motorcycle crash) and was nearly destitute. The staff and other patients were intimidated by Brenda (including me!) because of her large, tattooed physique and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude. But this didn’t deter Patrick. He made it a point to park his electric wheelchair next to her every day and, with gentleness and tact, elicit Brenda’s inner thoughts and feelings. It was a miracle to see how Brenda softened and opened up as she gradually responded to Patrick’s unconditional love.
When Patrick’s birthday rolled around, Brenda insisted on bringing him a beautiful, store-bought cake – which we all knew she couldn’t afford – and even helped him blow out the candles when he struggled to come up with a sufficient puff of air. That was the first day I ever saw Brenda smile.
As a therapist, I was accustomed to being the nurturer and caregiver to my patients, but Patrick reversed the roles with me on more than one occasion. At the time, I was working through some hard issues with my young daughter, Cricket, and Patrick would discreetly seek me out to privately express concern and inquire about her. He went out of his way to befriend Cricket, and I’ll never forget the look of surprised glee on her face when he showed up at one of her gymnastic competitions to cheer for her. He’d had to make special arrangements for wheelchair van transportation on a Sunday afternoon to travel 25 miles to the meet. Not an easy task.
But for Patrick, nothing was too much trouble if it encouraged someone who needed it.
As months passed, Patrick’s condition grew worse. It became hard for him to swallow, and eventually he could no longer eat. He struggled to remain mobile, but as his body grew more rigid he was unable to turn his head or even work the joystick to propel his wheelchair. In spite of the best medical efforts, Patrick lapsed into a coma and passed away soon after his 24th birthday.
Many lives were profoundly enriched because of this dying young man in a wheelchair. Of all the lessons I learned from Patrick, the most important was to treat even the most seemingly unapproachable person with dignity and compassion.
Although it’s been many years since I last heard Patrick’s voice, I still see his dazzling smile and hear his sweet, wholehearted laugh sometimes in my dreams. I picture him in heaven, running and dancing on strong limbs that at last equal the inner strength he shared with others on Earth … a liberated butterfly, escaping the confines of a broken body that, like a cocoon, only temporarily restricted his boundless spirit.
So, dearest BFF (Blessed Friend Forever) – who is your Patrick? Your community of BFFs and I would love to hear your story.