He speaks! At last.

August 18, 2015. Mom and I arrived at the hospital at 7:40 A.M. to find that Dad was sleeping and unrestrained, which was a nice change. I spoke briefly with his nurse, Pam, and learned that his WBC count had inched up again to 13.3. I hoped that we would learn something about the results of the BAL test on Dad’s secretions. I woke him and wiped his eyes and face with a cool cloth.

At 8:30 A.M., the wound care team stopped by to assess Dad’s various sores, including a new blister that had just developed yesterday on his right hand. The constant repositioning of Dad by the nurses annoyed Dad but was supposed to reduce the likelihood of bed and pressure sores. I can’t imagine what his condition might have been like without the constant movement. Janie, the respiratory therapist, stopped by at 9:15 A.M. and moved him from CPAP support to the trach collar. She said that the doctor wanted to see whether Dad could handle an eight-hour trial today.

Dad had a moment where he indicated that he was getting out of bed. I wasn’t sure whether he needed the bathroom or just wanted out of the bed. I persuaded him to remain in the bed. My father had always been very focused on completing tasks and achieving goals. This character trait seemed to be amplified in his delirious state. Since his first stay at the CCH, he had been intent on getting out of bed to use a proper bathroom. Unfortunately, accomplishing this goal was not possible at this time, and reminding him of that reality was my daily task.

Around 10:45 A.M., Mom left the hospital to run some errands. We still hadn’t seen the doctors, but we had heard that the MICU had a full house. Also, they seemed to assess patient condition on a curve. If your condition was less critical than the other patients, then you might not see the doctors until early afternoon. We couldn’t find fault with this convention, but it made any sort of planning difficult.

Dad had been coughing up a lot of thick yellow secretions today and seemed to be pretty sleepy and confused. I was concerned that he might be battling some new, or recurrence of an old, infection. At one point he asked me to explain about the bathroom and review what would be happening today.

At 11:15 A.M., the machine that provided oxygen aerosol support for the trach collar stopped making its usual working sounds. The equipment problem didn’t seem to create any breathing problems for Dad, but Pam said that the oxygen line had popped off. Aside from the lack of sound, Dad didn’t realize that anything was wrong. After Janie, the respiratory therapist, arrived, she performed a little maintenance on the machine and provided a little trach care on Dad, which reduced his secretions somewhat.

During rounds, Dr. Ghamande acknowledged Dad’s elevated WBC count and said that they were still waiting for the results of the BAL. He said that barring any unforeseen complications, Dad should be able to transfer to the CCH in a couple of days. He said that they would keep extending Dad’s trach collar trials by a couple of hours a day and continue with CPAP support at night. He thought that Dad should be ready for a speaking valve very soon.

After the doctor left the room, Lanette, Dad’s case manager, told me that according to Cheryl, Lanette’s counterpart at the CCH, Dad has used all of his 90 days of annual Medicare hospitalization coverage, plus 46 of his 60 reserve days. This meant that he would be uninsured in 14 days. I experienced a wave of panic and a knot in my stomach. I couldn’t see any way on earth that my father could go home in two weeks. I had been keeping track of Dad’s days and according to my notes, he had been hospitalized for 105 days, not 136. Until this moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that you could run out of Medicare coverage. It made sense, but I was operating in survival mode and not financial mode. The other unpleasant surprise was that his supplemental insurance was tied to his Medicare coverage. So, although he continued to pay the Medicare and supplemental insurance premiums, he would be uninsured. I sat down with my calendar and recounted the days a couple of times to sanity-check myself. My results differed from Lanette’s, and I called her and contested her calculations. She said she would contact Cheryl, but I was pretty sure that the error was Lanette’s.

Mom returned from her errands and lunch at 12:30 P.M. and I left the hospital for home at that time. Shortly after Mom arrived, a couple of nurses moved Dad to the cardiac chair. While he was in the chair, Travis and Mike, the physical therapists, came by and exercised Dad’s legs. They said that Dad’s progress was very slow and that he had lost considerable strength in his upper and lower extremities. The 105 days in bed had taken a toll on Dad’s strength.

While Dad was still sitting in the cardiac chair, Dawn, a trach nurse, stopped by for a routine trach change. Dawn told Mom that she was handling Svenja’s cases while she was on vacation. By the time that Dawn finished the trach care and left the room, Mom needed to head back to the house.

Mom and I returned to the hospital shortly after 7:00 P.M. Dad was in a very agitated state and insisted that he was going to get out of the bed. Amanda, his nurse, tried to redirect his attention by repositioning him in the bed. Unfortunately, Dad was delirious and was beyond redirection.

When patients use the trach collar to breathe, the trach collar is deflated, which enables the patient to speak around the trach. It’s not the best form of communication, but between the ability to speak around the trach and the letter board, Dad had been able to communicate with us and the various health providers. He started talking about leaving the Mormon church, and then switched to yelling about quitting the hospital union. He warned Mom to run from the Mormons and not let them get to us. He also spoke of membership in the hospital, and he told me and Mom that we should not join the hospital. Maggie, the charge nurse and one of Dad’s former night nurses, came in and chatted with him for a little while. Coincidentally, Maggie was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Fortunately, she kept her sense of humor during his ranting about Mormons. He kept talking about bathrooms and coffee and not being around miserable people. After 8:30 P.M., his mental state progressed from agitated to aggressive. Amanda had to get the help of another couple of nurses to restrain him. Dad actively fought the restraints and while flailing his arms, struck one of the nurses. It was an experience that I hope to never repeat. Amanda had administered Seroquel in Dad’s feeding tube before they started restraining him, and she said that he should calm down soon. Mom and I left the hospital, more shaken and drained than we had been in many days, and we prayed that Dad would have an uneventful night. As hopeful as we had been a couple of days ago, we were now worried.

August 19. Mom and I woke up this morning to a broken air conditioner. The normal temperature for central Texas in August approaches 100 degrees. Fortunately, my parents had zoned air conditioning, so the house wasn’t unbearably hot. We were able to schedule a service call before we left home.

Mom and I arrived at the hospital shortly after 7:30 A.M. and saw that Dad was still restrained. We noticed that he was on the trach collar and was breathing hard. We quickly learned that he had been on the trach collar all night. The night staff had taken it upon themselves to extend his eight-hour trial to more than 20 hours. We asked Charma, his nurse, to call Dr. Stewart. When Dr. Stewart arrived, he had Janie, the respiratory therapist, put Dad back on CPAP support. While Janie was making the change, she removed some large clogs from Dad’s throat by using saline to lavage the tracheostomy tube. She said that after Dad’s lungs had had some time to rest, they could move him back to the trach collar. We wanted him to get back on a schedule of using the trach collar during the day and CPAP at night. The doctor wasn’t too thrilled that Dad had not been moved back to CPAP support during the night. While the doctor was in the room, he told us that Dad’s WBC count was now 11.9, which was an improvement from yesterday.

imagesDr. Stewart then told me and Mom that he wanted to meet with us in a conference room to consult with us about some of Dad’s future possibilities. He started off this consultation by stating that they considered Dad’s recovery to be one of their best achievements and acknowledged our part in that success. He went on to say that he suspected that if Dad did go home, he could have more episodes of pneumonia. He continued by saying that Dad might never fully develop the ability to swallow, and if he did, he could very likely choke on his food and develop pneumonia again. He went on to say that although Dad might never be able to eat peas and carrots, we should let him eat what he wants, regardless of the consequences. He said that there was a good chance that Dad would go home with a trach tube. After that disheartening meeting with one of our favorite caregivers, Mom and I returned to Dad’s room.

Brandon, who was helping Janie, came in at 9:00 A.M. to administer some oral care, which was a disaster. Dad wanted no part of it and spit out the mouthwash. It was ironic how much Dad hated the procedures that were most important to his recovery.

During the morning rounds, the attending physician, Dr. Shekhar Anant Ghamande, told us that Dad had some new drug-resistant infection, which was why there was some purulence in Dad’s secretions. To combat it, they would start Dad on Meropenem, one of the three antibiotics that they could prescribe for this infection. Aside from the infection in his lungs and the pressure sores, Dad was progressing well. The doctor also said that Dad could get a speaking valve today! I had the doctor tell Dad the good news, but Dad asked only if he could go home.

Barbara, one of the hospital chaplains, stopped by to visit Dad. We had come to know her pretty well during Dad’s stay, and she had been very helpful. As I had mentioned earlier, the chaplains were the people to ask about anything in the hospital. During Barbara’s visit, she confided to me and Mom that she was retiring at the end of the month.

When Barbara left, I saw Dr. Pan, the nephrology fellow, in the hall with Dr. Nimrit Goraya, the nephrologist, Dr. Goraya said that they had planned to dialyze Dad for eight hours, but because he didn’t have much edema, they would shorten it to six hours. Instead of being finished at 3:00 P.M., they would finish around 1:00 P.M.

Mom and I left the hospital around 11:30 A.M. for lunch. I spent the afternoon working from home and met with the AC repairman, our hero for the day. Shortly after Mom returned to the hospital after lunch, she met Pastor Don in the MICU waiting room, and they had a nice visit before entering Dad’s room.

Mom called me during the afternoon to tell me that Dad still didn’t have a speaking valve. She couldn’t remember if he was to get one today or tomorrow. I told her that the doctor had said that he should get the speaking valve today. I had her tell Dad’s nurse call Dawn, Svenja’s backup while she was on vacation.

Passy-Muir speaking valve

Shortly before 4:00 P.M., Dawn stopped by to change Dad’s trach tube. This change was different from yesterday’s change because this time she also changed the size of the trach. The new size would enable easier swallowing, which would help Dad control his own secretions. Whenever we swallow or clear our throats, we’re handling normal secretions. The presence of a trach tube makes that normal activity more difficult. This new trach tube had a smaller outer diameter, but a larger inner diameter. This sizing combination would enable Dad to inhale more oxygen and swallow easier. The icing on this new trach-tube cake was that the new trach tube could accommodate the Passy-Muir speaking valve. As soon as Dawn placed the speaking value on the trach tube, Dad was able to speak again. WooHoo! Unfortunately, she had to remove it to put Dad back on CPAP support.

Mom came home shortly after the trach tube change-out and told me that Dad was still on CPAP. I called the nurse and reminded her that he was supposed to go back onto the trach collar at 2:00 P.M. The dilemma was that he could not sleep with the speaking valve, so even if he could sleep with the trach collar, he couldn’t speak. During times when he was receiving CPAP support, he couldn’t have the speaking valve. We just had to get him back on a schedule that would enable him to speak during the day.

When we arrived at the hospital shortly after 7:00 P.M., Dad was still on CPAP, but Renee, the respiratory therapist was in the room. I spoke with her and Amanda, Dad’s nurse, about my concerns, and they said that they would get him back on schedule during the night.

Renee switched Dad to the trach collar for the remainder of our visit so that Dad could talk with us. We had some strange conversations with Dad. It seemed like he thought that he was back at work. He finally adjourned our meeting at 8:00 P.M., and told me and Mom to leave.

A cool front had passed through the area and Mom and I took a couple of moments to enjoy the cooler night air. As we drove home, we marveled at the spectacular sunset. We stopped at the field behind the new Valero gas station to look at the sunset before heading home.

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