By Heather Millar
When I first saw the news item that a Taiwanese cancer patient had set fire to his hospital, I flashed back on a recurring exchange that I have with my daughter, “Can you think of a more constructive way to deal with your anger?”
Apparently, a 67-year-old man named Lin Chi-hsiung had been living at Sinying Hospital in the southern city of Tainan since 2010. He has colon cancer. He shared the wards with about 100 other patients, some of them mentally unstable, some on respirators and unable to move. According to local media, Taiwanese hospitals suffer from staffing shortages.
The suspect, who was arrested and judged to be sane, made a full confession, saying he lit tissue papers and threw them into a room full of clothes. Security cameras showed a naked man fleeing the blaze. Police later found Mr. Lin hiding in a storage facility. He told the police that he was “unhappy about his illness.” Surely, that gets an award for understatement!
While the hospital apparently had a working sprinkler system, 12 people died, most of smoke inhalation. Sixty were injured, including the suspect.
I tried to find more about the backstory to this tragedy. What would make a sane man do something so crazy? But, other than the basic facts from the Associated Press and hand-wringing about staffing levels and the increasing numbers of elderly people with serious chronic illnesses, I couldn’t find much.
So humor me while I indulge in some conjecture: This man had been ill since 2010, the year I was diagnosed with cancer. After a year and a half, I was done, done, done with the misery of cancer treatment. I’ve enjoyed a pretty normal life for the last 12 months. Not this man: he’s been sick for going on three years. He has colon cancer, so let’s guess that he’s had part or all of his colon removed. That means he probably has to wear a colostomy bag to collect his waste, never fun. He’s in a hospital for chronic illness, so let’s guess his cancer has metastasized.
Imagine the persistent cancer injuries and miseries: Maybe friends and relatives don’t visit very often. Maybe there aren’t enough nurses to deal with his colostomy bag efficiently. Maybe he doesn’t get to bathe as often as he’d like. Maybe he has to endure endless chemotherapy and radiation. Maybe he has regrets about his life, or maybe he’s bored out of his skull. And then imagine all the petty slights: soiled sheets or underclothes that may not get changed quickly, silly questions from strangers, perhaps nurses who are so busy that he feels they ignore him. Maybe the guy in the next bed has mental problems and cries out a lot or maybe he talks to himself. Maybe the hospital food in Taiwan is as bad as it is in this country. Imagine week after month after year of that.
What if Mr. Lin had had a good life before his diagnosis? What if he feels as if he is now in a hellish limbo, half-forgotten by the world? I’d be amazed if that didn’t make him angry, so furious that he’d go so far to do something pretty nutty, like try to burn the hospital down.
It’s natural to get angry at illness. Illness isn’t fair. It’s not fun. It’s scary to be reminded of how finite life is. As Dylan Thomas famously wrote, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!
But, please, don’t set fire to the clinic. There are much better ways to deal with anger: When I was sick, I found that exercise helped: running and cycling, then hiking and walking as I got weaker. Since I’m an extrovert, I’d seek out the company of friends to blunt the edge of my internal rage. Feeling angry? Change the subject! I punched pillows. I made slightly bitter jokes. Then, I moved on.
What helps you cope with those days when anger overwhelms you? Let us know here.