"We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once."
In the summer of 2010, I was shadowing one of the specialists associated with our Neuroscience and Pain Lab at the Stanford Pain Clinic. The Pain Clinic is a tertiary care center and has been awarded The Center of Excellence award by the American Pain Society twice in the last four years. Patients with some of the most complex chronic pain disorders come to seek help at the Stanford Pain Clinic - some even call it the Mecca of Pain Medicine.
While I was able to see a lot of different forms of acute and chronic pain disorders at the clinic, there was one patient in particular I had the pleasure to observe with the attending physician that I continue to remember with fondest admiration. She had the kindest eyes. Her brown hair was beautifully styled in a long bob. She wore black pants, a white top, a bright red coat with a silver brooch, and low black heels. Her nails were meticulously manicured. There were two rings on her right hand and a thin gold bracelet around her wrist. Her makeup was flawless: some mascara and the most perfect red lipstick. Her chart said she was 81 years old, but she didn't look a day over 65.
She sat complacently on the patient bed, her black leather bag resting beside her, her feet hovering just above the floor on account of her short frame. A hardcover edition of Joyce Carol Oates's We Were The Mulvaneys sat next to her bag. Obviously, I took a liking to her immediately.
After the fellow presented her history to the attending physician, he started to ask her some questions, to which she responded with a smile that revealed perfectly even teeth. I learned a lot about her in just a quarter of an hour. She lived in a retirement community alone since the death of her husband a few years ago. She enjoyed walking and reading. And dancing. And here's where the problem resided.
"You know, we have a lot of community parties, especially in the summer. And lately, I have been walking less and dancing less," she said seriously, drawing her hands through the air firmly as she stressed on the word "less." She sometimes experienced a sharp, shooting pain from her heel to her calf while she walked and danced. At other times, she felt a tingling sensation in her toes.
"I just wish I could dance more, you know. Sometimes, I have to stop in the middle of a song, and it's rather disheartening. I love dancing so much. It's just my feet - the right one more than the left. It starts to ache so, so much. If only I could curb this pain so I could go back to dancing! The summer is almost over, and there are so many events coming up around Labor Day."
Here was an 81-year-old woman in the best of health (and with perfect teeth). Really, her biggest complaint at the visit was that she was not able to dance as much as she used to. I will repeat. 81 years old.
She walked out with a prescription for a few tests to diagnose the cause and medications to control the pain. I could tell she would be perfectly satisfied if the medication helped her enough to make the dancing possible. Her disposition and energy were absolutely inspiring. She had a generous smile, a confident manner, a strong step. And she pulled off red lipstick like no one else I've ever met. She commanded it.
When I am completely exhausted from everyday tedium, when washing one more dish or playing one more game with Jahan or popping in the Zumba DVD one more time seems like a monumental, nay, unconquerable challenge, I think of the amazing old lady in red whose dance moves would likely put me to shame at my so-called prime. She is probably still dancing heartily at parties held in her retirement community. Her spirit didn't suffer because of loss or tragedy or age. She really lived. And what a way to do it!