Keep a Stiff Upper Lip in Life, Even When the Lower Lip’s Infected

Keep a Stiff Upper Lip in Life, Even When the Lower Lip’s Infected August 8, 2022
Yousuf Karsh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “stiff upper lip” as “a steady and determined attitude or manner in the face of trouble.” But it’s hard to do that when my son Christopher’s lower lip is infected because he bites down so hard on it in his traumatically brain injured state.

Saturday morning, staff at my adult son’s care facility informed us that his bottom lip looked infected, and he should be seen at the hospital. Hours later, the hospital released Christopher and the ambulance service transported him back to his care facility. The doctor on duty told my wife that the lip wasn’t infected since there was no pus or discharge.

I visited Christopher later in the evening. I was alarmed to find pus oozing from his lip. The nurses who initiated hospital transport earlier in the day were working into the night. They indicated they had observed pus on the lip that morning and made that clear to the hospital staff prior to Christopher’s first visit. I showed a picture of the lip to our family consultant Dr. Potter, who said Christopher needed to be seen that night, if at all possible, but no later than Sunday morning. I called the hospital and informed the emergency unit that the doctor who had released him with no antibiotics misdiagnosed him and that he needed to be seen again. So, the ambulance service appeared a little while later and off we went.  The second doctor concurred that the lip was infected and prescribed antibiotics. We were relieved he did not think the lip required debridement, which involves removing a layer of skin for healing.

We were at the hospital all night. Christopher did not return to his care facility until late Sunday morning. Since Christopher does not speak, I dared not leave his side. He was so uncomfortable, and I had to call for help several times during the night, including asking when the transport would finally arrive. The ambulance service delayed return pickup several times during the morning hours and we could not transport Christopher without a gurney. My son and I spent a largely sleepless night at the hospital. I often found him staring at me, and I tried my best to comfort him while fighting back deep frustration and fatigue.

Where is the meaning and purpose in my son biting his lip, in the misdiagnosis, in the ambulance service delays, and the sleepless night? Doctors aren’t sure if Christopher’s biting of his lower lip is conscious or unconscious activity. All I know is how conscious we are of how disturbing the lower lip looks and the suffering my son must be experiencing in his minimally conscious state.

I keep trying to keep a stiff upper lip no matter how bad Christopher’s lower lip looks, or whatever else he endures. There may not be anything meaningful or purposeful to his biting or to the misdiagnosis, or to the ongoing delays in transport. What is meaningful in this ordeal and others you and I face is the purpose you and I bring to care for others in need.

Some of the staff brought purpose and meaningful care to the situation at hand. The phlebotomist who took samples of blood to make sure the infection had not spread in Christopher’s body was so caring and careful. So, too, were the charge nurses over two shifts, who were empathic about our ordeal while seeking to resolve problems. The doctor who tended to Christopher was very thoughtful. He really tried to address my concerns, asked for my input on possible outcomes, and prescribed medication needed for healing Christopher’s lip. My son’s nurses at his care facility, the unit manager, and Dr. Potter also encouraged me with their attentiveness and heightened level of concern. Of course, the constant support of family and friends and caring people I have never met but who follow our story daily also plays an incredibly large role in fostering a profound sense of purpose and meaning to safeguard against despair. Thank you!

It is also worth noting here that I experienced some healing balm for my soul when a chaplain’s voice came over the intercom at the beginning of the Sunday morning shift. He gave a very brief meditation to medical staff over the speaker system. He encouraged them to pursue excellence in healthcare one moment at a time. I don’t know how many staff were listening, as they were going about their various tasks. But I listened attentively, even in my sleep-deprived state. I found the chaplain’s purposeful words very assuring. He spoke of how God is at work in the medical staff to fulfill God’s purposes for their lives and in the world. The world was there overnight in that emergency room, including the man brought in by police and the man crying out to a family member over the phone that the right side of his body was paralyzed. Amid the chaos and struggle, pain, and paralysis, I found the chaplain’s words comforting and reassuring. His meditation was just what the divine doctor ordered as medication for my soul. It helped me keep a stiff upper lip and kept me from biting down on the lower one.

Sometimes people bite down on their lower lip because of anxiety, angst, or even pain. Sometimes people stick out their lower lip because of displeasure. When I was a kid, my dad used to say a bird was going to perch on my lower lip if I didn’t stop pouting. Sometimes his gentle nudging to stop pouting worked. I wish he were here to get Christopher to stop biting down on his lip. Sometimes staff can get Christopher to stop chomping on his lip and grinding away at it. But at other times, he won’t release the lip. It is so painful to watch.

As I indicated above, we do not know if Christopher’s biting is conscious or unconscious. We don’t even know why he will go for weeks without biting down on the lip before starting up again. The ordeal can be overwhelming, enough to make me bite down on my own lip in a subconscious state of anxiety.

Amidst the turmoil, I need to keep a stiff upper lip and not lose my composure. It is vital for my emotional survival in supporting Christopher that I maintain “a steady and determined attitude or manner in the face of trouble.” Here again, I take comfort from the chaplain’s words that came to me over the intercom Sunday morning. God is at work to create meaning and purpose in the face of infection and all the chaos surrounding Christopher’s traumatic brain injury. Further to the chaplain’s encouragement to the emergency room medical staff, may each of us live with purpose and pursue excellence moment by moment. May we care for others and ourselves each moment of the day, knowing that God is at work in us to bring comfort and healing.

PS: This new day gives me another opportunity to practice what I preach. It won’t be easy, as we received word earlier today that the second doctor spoke too soon. Two of the lab tests came back with signs of bacteria. So off to the hospital Christopher and we go. I plan on taking with me the stiff upper lip while giving no room for the pouting birds to perch on the lower one. They can gather outside the emergency room on tree branches for all I care. There’s no space for them in the waiting room or my imagination.


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