Caregivers are less visible, lauded as unsung heroes to family members

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Two years ago an Ohio teacher was injured when teens threw a rock off a highway overpass in Pennsylvania. It crashed through the windshield of her family’s moving car, crushing her skull and causing severe brain damage; a senseless act of violence with horrible repercussions. She survived but needed round-the-clock care.

Last week I was saddened to hear that her caregiver husband, Randy Budd, had committed suicide.

I wouldn’t presume to guess what drove Randy to take his own life. I can only imagine the horror and shock he felt to see his wife of more than 30 years injured in that way; or the stress he felt as he shifted from husband to full-time caregiver.

An estimated 44 million Americans provide unpaid support to older people and people with disabilities, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance. Yet, most are ill-prepared for this role or for the emotional, mental and physical demands. Statistics show that between 40 to 70 percent of caregivers have significant symptoms of depression, which can lead to anxiety, substance abuse, and, in the worst cases, suicide.

I’ve seen first-hand how stressful and exhausting caregiving can be. I work at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, which serves as one of the key returning points for combat wounded from downrange.

In recent years, we saw miracles as rapid evacuation and advanced trauma care combined to create a combat survival rate greater than at any other time in history. Troops with complex traumas—severe burns and double, triple and even quadruple amputations—just hours from injury, not only survived, but thrived.

Their awe-inspiring service and sacrifice were lauded in the media. But less visible and less lauded were the caregivers—the husbands and wives, moms and dads, and even friends who left everything behind to rush to their loved one’s side.

Several years ago I met Saralee Trimble, whose son had been badly injured on a roadside in Afghanistan. Then-Pfc. Kevin Trimble was just four months into his deployment when a Soldier standing a few feet away stepped on an IED. The Soldier was killed and Trimble lost both of his legs above the knee and his left arm above the elbow. Saralee left her job, husband and friends behind to stay at her son’s side 24/7.

At the time Saralee told me the toughest part of caring for her triple amputee son wasn’t what I would have guessed—the strain of caregiving, the complicated logistics of navigating appointments, or the lack of time alone—it was seeing her son in pain.

“Knowing that he’s suffering … that’s very hard,” she told me.

She never gave a thought to her own sacrifice.

Closer to home, I watched my mom shift from wife and lover to caregiver in recent years as she shouldered the bulk of my father’s care.

My parents had smartly saved throughout the years and retired early with plans to travel and volunteer, but an unexpected diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease put a major crimp in their plans.

In a few short years, this debilitating disease left my father, a brilliant doctor and retired Air Force colonel, nearly helpless. My mom now cares for him from sunup to sundown, feeding, dressing and bathing him without complaint.

“He always took care of me,” she told me once. “I am happy to do the same for him.”

Still, I hear the strain and exhaustion in her voice as he declines. She worries about the mounting costs of health care and her ability to continue to care for him at home. Even worse, she’s had to watch her lover and best friend of 40 years slowly slip away physically and mentally.

Reading about Randy Budd reminded me of how much family caregivers sacrifice and serve in their own way. I wish he’d reached out for help that Saturday night, but still don’t believe his death was in vain.

Because of that rock tossed by thoughtless teens, he was instrumental in getting Ohio to require new or rehabbed bridges to be topped with fencing to deter vandals, and had been pushing for similar legislation in Pennsylvania. He truly made a difference.

Perhaps his death can also serve as a reminder of our unsung heroes caring for children, elderly parents, spouses, veterans and friends. As a society, we need to turn our attention to family caregivers; offer them our support, resources and appreciation. Together, we need to build them a safety net so they never hit rock bottom.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
For veterans in crisis and their Family and friends, call (800) 273-8255 and Press 1, send a text message to 838255 or visit www.veteranscrisisline.net. If you are in immediate medical crisis, call 911. n