You Think He Heard Me?
Marie, a thin woman with an
intense face, walked into my consultation room and
eyed me suspiciously. I stood up to greet her and
invited her to sit on a chair. She thanked me
nervously and sat at the edge of a chair. She was
distraught and obviously depressed. I decided to
give her a few moments to compose herself while I
read through her clinical questionnaire. After I
finished reading, I gently asked her if she wanted
to add anything.
"I'm frightened for my job," she
blurted. "I'm a senior laboratory technologist. I
had a photographic memory. I would read a long
procedure for a complex new experiment, then
complete the experiment without once looking at the
written procedure. Nobody believed my memory. In the
laboratory they said I must play some sort of game
and memorize the whole procedure the night before
without letting anyone know about it."
"And now?" I asked softly.
"Now I read the procedures, but I
cannot understand any of it."
"How did this happen?"
"I don't know."
"I mean did it happen suddenly
after some chemical exposure or after a severe viral
infection, or did the change occur slowly over
"Slowly over months."
"Do you recall the beginning? Is
there a specific time to which you can trace this
Such drastic health problems
rarely develop suddenly—as bolts from the blue. The
exceptions, of course, are cases of sudden massive
exposure to chemicals. I then moved to other
clinical features of her illness. In the companion
I describe many such case histories of chronic
fatigue sufferers—the human canaries, as I call
them. Extensive experience in caring for human
canaries convinces me that all their complex case
histories can be reduced to one basic element:
unrelenting oxidative fires that burn out their
digestive-detoxifying-receptor-energy enzymes. The
patterns of illness look different only to
I wondered what events might have
set Marie's enzyme pathways to oxidative flames. She
sat on the edge of the chair, leaning forward,
holding herself tight, as if to keep herself from
falling on the floor. Her neck and upper torso were
stiff. Without touching, I knew her neck muscles
were hard as brick. Several moments passed. Yet
there was no sign of her softening up. We spoke for
about half an hour, mostly with my asking questions
and her giving short, cryptic answers. She remained
suspicious, yielding no significant clues to the
onset of her illness. I began to wonder why she had
bothered to come see me if she had decided not to
open up to me. I ordered some diagnostic tests and
said many things to create and sustain some hope for
her recovery, but to no avail.
Weeks turned into months, but she
showed no sign of improvement. At the Institute, my
colleagues and I are blessed with a large group of
extraordinarily compassionate, devoted and diligent
nurses. They often tell me when a patient doesn't
show satisfactory progress following a reasonable
period after beginning our programs. More than one
nurse told me that something was holding back
Marie's recovery. No matter what therapies we tried,
we saw no response. Finally, I asked the staff to
schedule an extended visit—a long visit when I spend
twice as much time as I usually do—for Marie. I had
to learn where the block was.
Between held-back tears and loud
sobbing, Marie finally told me the story. Several
years before falling sick, she had gone through
difficult and prolonged divorce proceedings. She won
the custody of their only child, a handsome boy she
doted on. With time she recovered from the trauma of
divorce and for some years had a good life caring
for her little boy. There were some superficial
relationships along the way. When her son grew
older, his American teenage ways began to clash with
her European upbringing. Their conflicts grew in
intensity and frequency. Along the way she had
troubles with her boyfriend. His insensitive demands
for sex, even during her health difficulties,
bothered her greatly.
Some time later, trouble began
between her son and her boyfriend, which fanned the
flames of her anguish. Her son threatened to leave
the house on several occasions. Then came the
fateful day. The woman and her son argued intensely.
The boy used foul language and repeated his threat
to leave the house. Holding a basket of laundry, she
angrily told him to go ahead and do what he wanted,
then walked upstairs. At the top of the stairs, she
stopped and looked back. Her son stood at the door,
holding his motorcycle helmet in his hands, his eyes
blazing with hatred. "I hate you," he yelled. "I
hate you too!" she shot back and entered her
Several hours later, she received
a call from the police asking her to come to the
local hospital. The boy died in her arms a few
moments after she reached the hospital.
"I wish someone could answer a
question for me," she spoke, holding back her tears.
"What?" I asked.
"Before he died I told him I
loved him. Do you think he heard me?"
"Yes, I'm sure he did," I replied, choking on my