July 24, 2015. The call that we dreaded from the hospital during the night hadn’t come. We didn’t know what to expect today, but we had to take it one hour at a time.
When Mom and I arrived at the hospital, we found that Dad was back on dialysis, for the fourth time this week. According to Andrea, his nurse, Dad was less responsive this morning, which was not what we wanted to hear. She added that, according to his morning lab work, he was still suffering from metabolic acidosis. She had been able to wean him off of one of the vasopressors, but his blood pressure dropped below 65 MAP during dialysis, and they had to restart the vasopressor. When I asked her about his WBC count, she told me that it was up to 18.9, a 300% increase in less than 48 hours.
Dr. White started his rotation today as the attending physician. We now had what seemed like a long relationship with this doctor, and he didn’t pull any punches with us. He told us that because of all the vasopressors that Dad was taking for his low blood pressure, his toes were being affected and he might lose a couple of them. The doctor strongly suspected that Dad’s circulation problems would begin to move up his extremities. Dad’s liver was also in shock, and the good doctor said that he was surprised that Dad had been able to withstand the dialysis. He also stated that Dad’s pupils were nonresponsive and he did not withdraw from pain, even when taken off sedation. He reiterated Dr. Sanchez’s prognosis from yesterday in that he did not expect Dad to survive this episode. At the end of this uplifting visit, Mom and I felt that we might need to make a decision tomorrow or Sunday.
Pastor Don stopped by around 1:45 P.M., and Mom and I had a very emotional visit with him. I just couldn’t believe that this was happening, and Don said that it was OK for me to be mad at God. I was mad, frustrated, and heartsick, but I don’t think that I reached the point of being mad at God. Among other things, Don asked us if we had considered hospice. I wasn’t sure whether hospice care was available at the hospital or some other location. At that point, I hadn’t considered anything, and I wasn’t ready to think about it.
Shortly after Don left us, I walked over to the north tower to visit with some of the CTICU nurses. I found a couple of our favorite nurses and provided them with a brief update on Dad’s status. When I returned to Dad’s room, I learned that Andrea had been able to wean Dad off of two of the five vasopressors, and his blood pressure seemed to be stable. This was the first good news since Dad’s return to Memorial, and I could feel myself exhale. I said a silent prayer that we could wean Dad off the remaining vasopressors before he lost any extremities.
Later in the day, Pastor Don stopped by again with his wife, Wynn. Mom had met her two nights earlier, but this was the first time that I had met her. I found her to be delightful and I was pleased to learn that she worked in the chaplain’s office at the hospital.
Vasopressors increase blood pressure by constricting the blood vessels. This constricting of blood vessels is particularly acute in the extremities and in situations like Dad’s, toes and fingers sacrifice blood flow for the benefit of the vital organs. Andrea tried to find Dad’s pulse in his feet with her hands, but couldn’t. She eventually was able to find a pulse in both feet with a Doppler ultrasound. The relief among those of us in the room was palpable when we heard the sound of blood flow.
Mom and I went home for dinner and returned to the hospital at 7:15 P.M. Charlie, the respiratory therapist, had just finished Dad’s trach and oral care and ventilator maintenance. Dad was still on three vasopressors. Mom and I met Donna, the night nurse, before leaving for the night. She told us that Dad had additional blood draw after dialysis and that his WBC count was now 22.7, up another 4 points from this morning. His WBC count hadn’t increased at this rate since his first aspiration episode in May.
I should have been encouraged that Dad had survived another day, but I was concerned about Dad’s worsening responsiveness. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing him without being able to communicate with him one last time. I had mentioned to Andrea that I wanted to talk with a respiratory therapist to see if there was a way in which we could communicate with him.
July 25, 2015. Mom and I arrived at Dad’s room at 7:15 A.M. We were pleased to see Andrea again, but nurses work only three days each week, so we knew this was our last day with her. Dad’s WBC count was now 19.2, down slightly from yesterday afternoon, his hemoglobin was down, and his acidosis condition had improved to the point that he was now slightly alkaline. Dad had been receiving a bicarbonate drip, which they now decided to stop. The vasopressors were still affecting the blood flow in Dad’s feet. We held our breath again as we watched Andrea struggle to find a pulse with the Doppler ultrasound.
Dad was sleeping a lot, and Andrea said that he was not responding to commands, but he opened his eyes for her. He opened his eyes for me, too, but I couldn’t get him to squeeze my hand.
Charris, one of the residents assigned to Dad, told us that when Dad arrived a couple of days ago, they performed a mini bronchoscopy on him to take some cultures from his lungs. They now knew that in addition to the aspiration pneumonia, he also had an infection (pseudomonas) in his lungs. Severe cases of pseudomonas generally occur in people who are already hospitalized with another illness or condition, or people who have a weak immune system. It seemed that everything that ailed Dad now was hospital acquired.
Dr. Pan, the nephrology resident, stopped by and told us that because Dad was not very acidosic and didn’t seem to have much extra fluid, they would not dialyze him today. He said that the nephrology team would assess Dad on a daily basis to determine whether to dialyze.
Dr. White stopped by during rounds at 8:00 A.M. He agreed that we’d seen a slight improvement in Dad since yesterday–probably due to the dialysis. He was able to feel the pulse in Dad’s feet with his hand, and he said that Dad’s feet looked better than they did yesterday. I knew that I shouldn’t have been so concerned about his toes when his life was at stake, but I was relieved that the pulse in Dad’s feet was getting stronger as they weaned him off of the vasopressors.
Now that Dad was back on the ventilator, he couldn’t talk. I got some wild idea yesterday that I had to give Dad a chance to communicate with us if he was going to die. Andrea said that she would contact the respiratory therapist to see if it would be possible to enable him to talk. The respiratory therapist contacted Svenja, the Trach Goddess of Scott & White. We hadn’t seen her since June, when she first changed Dad’s trach. When she heard about Dad’s condition and our desire to communicate with him, she agreed to give it a try. Unfortunately, all of her efforts failed to work, and we probably sapped some of Dad’s strength. The exercise woke him up for a couple of minutes, but he fell asleep almost immediately when Svenja reinflated his trach collar.
When Mom and I returned from a lunch break, we found that Dad was still asleep and impossible to rouse. Most of his vitals were still good, but Andrea told us that his platelet count had dropped, and he needed a platelet transfusion. We sat in the room with Dad for a few more hours and finally went home for dinner. It was difficult to stay in the room with him in his current condition, but it felt worse to leave him. Although his vitals were stable, his condition was still grave, and the failed attempt to communicate with him had wilted my already sagging spirits.
We returned to the hospital at 7:00 P.M., in time to meet Tyler, the night nurse. Mom and I liked him immediately, and he seemed intent on weaning Dad off of the vasopressors. While talking with the nurse, the respiratory therapist, also named Tyler, attended to Dad’s trach, the ventilator, and Dad’s oral care.
Before we left for the night, Tyler put some lotion and booties on Dad’s feet to help with his peeling and cold feet. Tyler told us that he would be working for four nights that week, and we really hoped that he would be assigned to Dad. When Mom and I left for home at 8:30 P.M., we felt a small sense of optimism that Dad would have a good night, and maybe we would too.