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Her Persistence Saved Her Husband’s Life

His erratic behavior signaled that something was wrong; she was determined to get to the bottom of it.

An artist's rendering of an angel and a brain xray; Illustration by Eva Tatcheva

January 31. I circled the date on my desk calendar at work with a blue felt-tip pen. It was only the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, but there was a long wait to see the neurologist and I was lucky to get my husband, Wayne, in to be seen at all. Meanwhile I didn’t want him to overhear me making the appointment.

I drove home from work, praying Wayne would agree to go. From day to day I never knew what kind of mood he would be in. He’d recently retired after a 39-year career at an international tech company, a job he loved. Retirement had required an adjustment, but to me that didn’t explain what was different about Wayne. Something was off, I was sure. I just couldn’t say what.

At home I found Wayne sitting in the living room. “What’d you do today?” I asked, trying to sound cheerful.

“I filled the tires, like you wanted,” he said.

Filled the tires? I walked out to the car and realized Wayne had meant he’d filled the gas tank. It made sense, as we were driving to see family for Thanksgiving, but the mix-up was the kind of mistake my husband made all too often these days—too many senior moments.

Initially, I’d thought it was me. I second-guessed myself, wondering if I needed to have my hearing checked. Wayne hadn’t really asked for a towel on his hamburger—surely he had asked for cheese. But the closer I listened, the more obvious it was that Wayne was confusing his words without ever realizing it. Trouble was, the signals that something was wrong came and went. We weren’t young anymore. Who wasn’t forgetful? No one else was around Wayne enough to see any kind of pattern. “It’s like he’s speaking in Mad Libs,” I said to my sister on the phone that evening.

“I do that sometimes,” she said. “I know what I want to say, but the wrong word comes out.”

“It’s other things too, though. Like when he watches Jeopardy in the evenings. He doesn’t play along, like he used to.” I could see how that example seemed trivial too, but after 40 years of marriage, I knew when Wayne wasn’t himself.

“You know, retirement is a big change,” my sister said. “He could be depressed. That can change someone’s personality.”

Wayne himself was quick to dismiss my concerns, and I didn’t want to make him self-conscious. He assured me he wasn’t depressed, and he’d already humored me by having a general checkup. Wayne had answered the doctor’s questions without error, but I did get the referral for the neurologist just to play it safe. All signs said I was worrying unnecessarily, a wife getting used to having her husband at home all day.

I hung up with my sister, thanking her for listening. All I can do is wait, I told myself and went to start dinner. The familiar sounds of Jeopardy came from the other room. Wayne stayed quiet.

He didn’t say much at Thanksgiving either. As we were leaving to go home, Wayne’s sister pulled me aside. “Is Wayne okay?” she said. “He seems a little…” She hesitated the same way I did when I tried to put my finger on it. “I asked him a question and he didn’t answer. That is, he said something, but it didn’t really…fit.”

“We have an appointment with a specialist in January,” I said.

She relaxed visibly. “Oh, good,” she said. “That’s not such a long wait.”

The next day I got started on my Christmas shopping. January will be here before I know it, I told myself at the mall. Wayne’s sister was right. I loaded my packages in the back of my car. And as a last resort, I could take Wayne to the ER. A nurse had once told me ER doctors were obligated to give someone a blood test and a CT scan.

The ER idea stuck with me, and by the time I unloaded the car at home, I summoned the courage to present the idea to Wayne. “If it will make you feel better, let’s go,” he said. I jumped at the opportunity, and off we went.

The ER was packed. Wayne wasn’t in any immediate danger, so we were told to wait. And wait. And wait. Hours went by. Any minute now, Wayne would want to leave. I looked at my watch—11 P.M. Maybe we’re just meant to wait until January, I thought. Everything in the world seemed to be telling me that. But something else wouldn’t let me go.

“Wayne Palka,” someone called. Our turn at last! We were led to an examination room.

“Why are you here?” the doctor asked curtly. He was obviously exhausted, probably from listening to patients like me all day and trying to make head or tail of vague symptoms. I took a breath and did my best to explain. As I talked, tripping over examples of how my husband was off, I felt myself slipping back into resignation. My voice trailed off. What did I have to go on, really, but my instincts?

“This is not really something for the ER,” the doctor said, ushering us out. “You ought to see a specialist.”

I hooked my arm in Wayne’s and planted my feet. “No,” I said.

The doctor looked at me with surprise. So did Wayne. Even I wondered where my sudden confidence had come from. It wasn’t like me to be so forthright, but I wasn’t going to be denied. “My husband needs a full evaluation, and he needs it now. Right now. Tonight.”

Without argument the doctor ordered a CT scan on the spot. I waited only 20 minutes back in the examination room for him to return with Wayne. The scan revealed a large cyst behind Wayne’s left eye and a small tumor on the surface of his brain. “I really didn’t expect to find anything,” the doctor admitted. He looked at me. “I’m glad you insisted.”

On December 2, more than a month before his scheduled appointment with the neurologist, Wayne underwent surgery. He showed immediate improvement, this husband I’d known for 40 years. After his recovery, many people confessed that they’d noticed something off about Wayne too, but weren’t sure how to broach the subject with me. I forgave them for keeping quiet. After all, I knew how hard it could be to speak up. An angel had to step in and do it for me.

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