Health crisis can heal or hurt a couple

By Kevin McKeough
Special to the Tribune

December 4, 2002

When San Francisco resident Georgia McNamara was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease just before Christmas last year, her husband, Kevin Muerle, didn't leave her side for the four days and nights she was in the hospital.

Over the next few months, he investigated treatment options with her, made certain she was taking her medication, and prodded her to go for walks.

Chicagoan Sharon Miller wasn't as fortunate. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, her husband was so unsympathetic that they ultimately divorced in 1999, after 12 years of marriage. "I know he was angry at the situation, but he took his anger out on me," Miller reflects.

Many couples will deal with one of the partners becoming seriously ill before old age, as seen in such well-publicized examples as Mayor Daley and his wife, Maggie, who is being treated for breast cancer, and rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his wife, Sharon, who is being treated for colon cancer.

Some relationships fall apart under these circumstances, while the bonds between other couples grow stronger--but even for them, a serious illness usually forces changes and presents challenges.

A crisis such as a serious illness or injury reveals the level of genuine commitment that a person has for the other partner in the relationship, according to Paul Teodo, administrative director for behavioral health services at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.

"That stress will help people have more capacity for another person, empathy, compromise, or will make them shorter with a person, more critical, more judgmental," Teodo says. "Relationships don't stay the same when they're in crises, they get better or they get worse."

According to Miller, 36, her husband criticized the amount of time she spent talking with friends about her sickness, mocked her when she was vomiting from her chemotherapy (he said, "Oh, I've been sicker than that with the flu") and complained that she wasn't recovering from her cancer quickly, the way a relative had.

"What it comes down to is the foundation you already have," she says. "An illness or any major life-threatening event magnifies the quality there."

"I feel indebted to him, but I also feel that that's what being in a relationship is all about," McNamara, who is 36 and has been married for 3 1/2 years, says of her husband's efforts. "Things don't work out evenly. There's a lot of time in a relationship where there's a debt that's not ever going to be repaid."

Muerle, 39, says he was looking for ways to ease his wife's burden while she fought the disease: "It was partially my own nature of how can I help solve this problem."

At first, though, McNamara resented his efforts, because she was used to being independent and didn't want to admit she needed help.

Similarly, Flossmoor resident Marsha Herring, 44, found herself getting angry at her husband, Cedric, also 44, who took over keeping their home in order while she was recuperating for four months after having surgery in 1998 to remove a severely compressed disc from her spine. The Herrings have been married for 19 years.

"A picture would be ajar, and I couldn't reach up and fix it," she recalls. "Everything just became very important to me, because I had no control over anything going on in my life. We had our fair share of arguments during that time."

In addition to being at the receiving end of a sick partner's anger at being helpless, caregivers run the risk of burning themselves out trying to help.

"If you are so distraught emotionally or what you're doing is so physically taxing that you become angry or ill, you won't be a support for the person, you'll probably be a distraction or a detraction," Teodo cautions.

If both partners can support each other at a time when each is feeling frightened and overwhelmed, though, they can create a deeper level of trust and intimacy.

Van and Teri Rice of Plano, Texas, who have been married for 16 years, took turns cheering up each other after Van, 42, was diagnosed with an enlarged heart in 1994 and spent a month in the hospital before receiving a transplant.

"When I was having a really low day, he was more philosophical," Teri remembers. At other times, Teri would help Van, who, for example, asked her to give him a sponge bath rather than having nurses do it.

"We had a real up-close chance to see each other at our very best and our very worst," Teri, 44, adds.

Being able to discuss needs and feelings is one of the most constructive steps couples facing a health crisis can take.

"The good men want to be strong for the women they love, so they don't tell her how upset they are," says Miller, who draws on her experience in her work as a counselor for Y-ME, a breast cancer awareness and support group.

Miller advises women to let their partners know they can lower their guard and share what they're feeling. That kind of communication remains important even after a sick partner recovers. Now that McNamara has finished chemotherapy and is cancer-free, she and Muerle are trying to pay more attention to each other than they did before she became sick.

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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