I was walking into the bank this morning when I passed a young slender teenager who was looking rather solemn, leaning against the wall with a cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth. The image created made me reflect on the previous evening’s conversation.
Whilst sitting around the kitchen table, the talk turned to smoking or to be more specific the health risks associated with it. The topic was very poignant because the grandfather of this particular family had died of lung cancer in his early forties some 30 odd years ago and currently his youngest son is about the same age and a smoker.
As I walk the streets of Sandakan, I often see many young and old smoking. Of course I don’t know the percentage of those who do smoke but I suspect it is quite high compared to other parts of the world.
This is not going to be a piece on ‘stop smoking or else’, but of the choices we make during our life.
In another life, I used to work as a nurse in Adelaide and in that capacity I had to deal with a lot of different people; some pleasant, some not so.
This took place almost 40 years ago. I don’t remember the name of the man central to my story, so for the sake of this tale we’ll call him Harry.
Harry was the sort of person who you could take too almost immediately. Despite his debilitating condition, he came across as chirpy, cheerful and personable. He struck up conversations with almost everybody on the ward. I was 19 and very shy but I immediately felt comfortable in his presence. At the time, he would have been in his early seventies but looked much older. His craggy-character-filled face told of a life of excesses and through his constant stories, obviously one he never regretted. Ever the optimist he refused to look at anything in a negative light. He must have been in excruciating pain but brought an immediate cheer to the otherwise depressing environment of the ward.
You see this particular ward was for amputees. Mostly people who had experienced trauma of some sort, severe diabetics, or in the case of Harry sufferers of PVD or peripheral vascular disease.
Harry was a chain smoker and had been since the age of 12. He loved his cigarettes and couldn’t imagine a life without them. He enjoyed the odd beer or two and smoking went hand in hand with that activity.
I’m not going to go into the intricate details of PVD other than to say the majority of those who contract the disease smoke.
Harry’s feet and lower legs were almost black through lack of blood supply. In other words, his limbs were dying. On this blackness grew large fluid filled blisters that constantly burst giving off a putrid odour whenever the wadded dressing was changed around his ankles.
The afternoon he arrived, the doctors had decided that he was to lose both of his legs above the knee. Harry took the news in his stride and tried to make a joke of his predicament. Everyone was amazed with his attitude, some thought he was in denial.
Harry could not stand to be in bed lying down. He said it was too painful but looking back I think in reality he just wanted to sit up so he could have a smoke. In those days, it was okay to smoke in hospital, so even though he was about to lose his legs through smoking the idea of not having a cigarette never crossed his mind.
You could see he was in great discomfort but he didn’t complain. He lit one cigarette after another deep in thought between the storytelling. This man had been a born entertainer.
Evening arrived and the anaesthetist came to see to Harry and talk about the next day’s surgery. He inspected his legs for a short time and asked to be excused. Soon after a team of medicos arrived and gave Harry a more thorough examination. After a short discussion among themselves, Harry was told the worst possible news. The circulation in his legs had completely shut down. The creeping blackness had now almost reached his groins. There was nothing they could do.
From what I remember Harry wanted to be alone for awhile. For the next half hour his only companion was a cigarette.
Later that night, I happened to go past his bed. I felt awkward and he could sense it. He smiled at me and that helped break the ice somewhat. He started one of his life’s stories, but stopped abruptly midstream and said,
“You know, I have done a lot of stupid things during my life. Things I am ashamed of. But not for one minute do I regret the general direct my life took.
I started smoking as a young boy; stole my old man’s tobacco and rolled my own. You know this may sound strange, but if I had my time over again I would still smoke. I loved it, those around me didn’t, but I did. It’s going to kill me. I can live with that.”
Laughing when he realised what he had just said. The conversation went on a little longer; I don’t remember anymore.
We said our goodbyes at the end of the shift and my parting memory was of a burly man sitting upright in an armchair, eyes fixed on some distant object with a sly almost indistinguishable smile, a cigarette butt firmly fixed in the corner of his mouth.
He died at 2 a.m. sitting in the same position I left him, still smoking until the very end.
One of the night staff told me that the last thing he heard Harry say before he passed away was “They can bury me with a packet of cigarettes; with me in life, a reminder of what killed me in death.” He was apparently chuffed with the idea.
The teenager was still there, cigarette in hand, as I started my walk home. I wonder if he’ll be one of the lucky ones or if it does eventually kill him, accept his fate the same way Harry did all those years ago. No regret?