December 25, 2015. At 3:45 A.M., I was awakened again by the gurgling sounds coming through the baby monitor, and hurried downstairs to check on Dad. As was the case yesterday, his speaking valve had come off and secretions were running out of the trach and onto his chest. I suctioned his trach, changed his dressing, and got him cleaned up. As Dianne was helping Dad change into a dry nightshirt, we noticed blood on his blanket. We quickly discovered that he was bleeding from his elbow. His fragile skin was susceptible to skin tears, and he often got them by just rubbing against fabric. We cleaned up the blood and bandaged him, and helped him back into bed. He then used the Yankauer wand to suction himself. Fortunately, his secretions were not as bad as they had been last night. While I was in his room, I took his temperature, which was slightly elevated again. By 4:15 A.M., Dad was drifting back to sleep and I was headed upstairs to bed. I slept until 6:45 A.M., when I was awakened by the sound of him coughing. I also heard Mom in the kitchen. It was Christmas morning, so I thought that I should get up and join her. Historically on Christmas morning, I was the one who leapt out of bed before dawn, turned on the lights on the tree, and started the music and the coffee, and hollered for everyone to get up, but I was really dragging this year because of this awful cold.
While I was finding my first cup of coffee, Dianne tried to interest Dad in a sponge bath, but he wouldn’t entertain the idea. During recent physical therapy sessions, he had practiced transitioning in and out of the shower, and he would have a “proper” shower after the holidays. Unfortunately, while he was holding out for a proper shower, he was accumulating several layers of dead skin, which caused flakiness and bumps to appear on his extremities. When I returned to his room to see how he was feeling, he said that he felt better than yesterday, but he wavered a bit when I helped him transition to his wheelchair.
Before I left his room, he instructed me to get out his red shirt and gray-blue trousers for Christmas. I was already wearing a red shirt and was encouraged that he wanted to wear his traditional Christmas attire. He and I weren’t feeling festive, but we still wanted to look the part.
After we all opened our presents, Mom, Stan, Dianne, and I enjoyed our family’s traditional breakfast of Christmas morning loaf and bear claws. After tidying the kitchen somewhat, I accompanied Dad as he wheeled himself from the bedroom to the sunken sunroom where we had the tree. Stan and Dianne helped Dad step down into the sunroom and over to a chair—a real chair and not the wheelchair. My parents and husband had long since resigned themselves to my insistence on our traditional family photo session on Christmas Day, but no one seemed to mind it this year. I usually came armed with fancy hats or other props, but this year I was just happy that our Christmas photo included the four of us.
After all of the excitement of opening packages and navigating the step to the sunken sunroom for photographs, Dad was ready for a nap.
After Dad woke up, he and Stan played several hands of cribbage, and Stan finally won, which was a major feat as Dad was darn good at the game. Dad was still fighting a chest cold and Stan was fighting a migraine, so they were both ready for naps when they finished their grueling match. Mom and I didn’t want to take naps, but we eventually fell asleep while sitting on the couch.
By the time that happy hour rolled around, we were all awake. Dad snoozed during our dinner and joined us for a rousing game of Oh Hell, in which he tied with Dianne for first place. His temperature had been slightly elevated today, but not enough for me to call the after-hours home care nurse.
December 26. Shortly before 1:00 A.M., the grinding sound of the suction machine blared through the baby monitor. After a few minutes, it stopped, but started again at 1:45 A.M. Dad resisted suctioning himself during the night, so I knew that he must be suffering. As soon as I entered his room, I checked his vitals; his oxygenation levels were borderline and his temperature was 99.6 degrees. I suctioned his trach and removed some very thick secretions. As much as I knew that he would hate it, I told him that I had to remove his speaking valve because it was restricting some of the oxygen intake.
Removing the speaking valve meant that he couldn’t call out for help, so I returned to his room a couple of more times before 4:00 A.M. to check on him, and then stayed with him until he woke up.
When he and Dianne were awake, I went to the kitchen for some coffee and to visit with Mom. I checked on Dad again and suctioned his trach, and then returned to my bedroom. Stan was just waking up, and I asked him to let me sleep for another 30 minutes and then wake me so that I could administer Dad’s meds. When I knew that Dad was up and about, I went back to bed and slept until 9:00 A.M.
After I had been up for awhile, Dad wheeled himself into the kitchen and thanked me and apologized for keeping me awake for most of the night. I told him that I would accept his thanks but not his apology. He could not help being sick any more than I could, but I couldn’t sleep if I knew that he was suffering and unable to help himself. As much as I liked having the aides in his room, we had hired quite a few sound sleepers. They often didn’t wake up until after I entered the bedroom.
Stan had purchased a turntable that could convert LP recordings to audio files. My parents have a large collection of 78 RPM records that Stan wanted to save, and he and Dad spent the remainder of the morning trying to get it to work. We were much more successful getting Dad to eat ice and walk around the house than recording music. Dianne was also able to interrupt the post-holiday festivities to get Dad to practice his swallowing exercises.
After lunch, Dad was ready for a nap. A cold front was moving through the area and weather changes usually triggered migraines for Stan, so he also took a nap. When Dad woke up from his nap at 2:30 P.M., I changed out his trach.
He and Stan played a couple games of cribbage, each winning one game. We were able to get Dad to consume one cup of crushed ice during happy hour, which made three cups for the day. I kept reminding Dad that Kristen had told us that nothing improved swallowing more than swallowing. After dinner, we played Oh Hell, and I won on the last hand, beating Mom by two points.
About the time that we finished playing cards, Dad started coughing again. I was a little surprised, because he had coughed only a few times since getting up this morning. It seemed that his secretions thickened and the coughing started with the approach of bedtime. When we got to the bedroom, I checked his oxygen saturation, and it was down to 90% and then dropped into the 80s. Had I not changed out his trach earlier today, I would have thought that his trach might be partially blocked. He hadn’t had his oxygen saturation level drop below 90% in many months. I told him that I’d need to remove the speaking valve again so that we didn’t restrict his oxygen intake.
I set my iPhone timer to wake me every hour so that I could check on him, but I might have been up more often than that. He seemed to be struggling with the secretions and I suctioned a lot of thick secretions from his trach. My goal was to keep his oxygen saturation level at a minimum of 92%, and I would not replace the speaking valve until he reached 93%. At midnight, his oxygen level was up to 92%.
December 27. At 2:00 A.M., I heard the sounds of coughing through the baby monitor. When I approached Dad’s bed, I saw that he had moved the oxygen trach mask away from his trach. In my bleary-eyed state two hours earlier, I had not returned the oximeter to its normal spot, and now I couldn’t find it to check his oxygen saturation. After I finished suctioning him, Dianne found the oximeter, and we saw that his oxygen level was at 93%. When I returned to his room two hours later, it was time for him to get up and get ready for dialysis. Thankfully, his oxygen level had now reached 95%. Dad didn’t usually have dialysis on Sunday, but the schedule had been modified to accommodate the Christmas holiday, which had fallen on Friday this year.
Dad was ready to go at 5:45 A.M. The weather was bad, and when the HOP had not arrived by 6:15 A.M., we were concerned that the bus was not coming; thankfully, they were just running late. After Dad and Dianne left, I went back to bed. Stan woke me about an hour later because he saw a text message arrive on my phone from Dianne about Dad’s low blood pressure. Although I appreciated that she wanted to keep me informed, I was pretty sick and wanted to sleep. Low blood pressure was always a possibility during dialysis and the nurses could adjust the dialysis machines to alleviate most problems.
In all the time that I had been living with my parents since my father’s discharge from the hospital or during weekend visits, I had not missed church on Sunday, but I was pretty certain that the entire congregation would be grateful if I stayed home today. Stan drove Mom to church and I tried to go back to sleep. No sooner had I closed my eyes than I heard the chime of my phone announcing the arrival of another text message. Dianne now informed me that Dad’s oxygen saturation levels were low. It was 10:15 A.M. and I was wearing my scrubs, so I decided that I should get up and go to the dialysis center and suction Dad–something that the nurses would not do. I had not told Dianne that I was coming, so she and Dad were surprised to see me. Between the suction machine and the Yaunaker provided by the dialysis center and our supplies in Dad’s dialysis bag, I had everything that I needed and was able to suction him in a matter of minutes. His oxygen levels were low and he was coughing, but I didn’t find any secretions in his trach. I couldn’t provide any more assistance, so I returned home.
By noon, Dad and Dianne were back home, and Dad was ready to lie down for a nap. After we transitioned him to the bed, I administered his meds and suctioned him again, and this time I pulled quite a bit of thick secretions from his trach. When he woke from his nap at 2:00 P.M., his oxygen saturation level was down to 88%, a reading that would have set off the alarm on the hospital monitors. I decided to administer the contents of a saline bullet before I suctioned him. I had been provided with a box of saline bullets when Dad came home, and each bullet contained 30 ml of saline, which would break down the secretions. I later learned that the use of saline bullets is a disputed practice, with some nurses professing that it can do more harm than good, but was what I was taught by the respiratory therapists at the CCH. When I tested his oxygen saturation a few minutes after I had suctioned him, his oxygen level had improved to 91%.
Dad was ready to get up from his nap. When Stan was here, Dad liked to play cribbage, and he needed to get his cribbage fix before Stan left. When they were finished, Dad was ready for another nap, but gave us strict orders to wake him before happy hour.
When I went to Dad’s room to wake him for happy hour, the oxygen trach mask was nowhere near his trach and his oxygen level was down to 79%. This wasn’t turning out to be one of my better home-care days. I placed his trach mask over the trach and increased the oxygen levels on the concentrator and his oxygen level soon returned to the 90% range.
Because I had been removing Dad’s speaking valve during the night, Stan wanted to find a way that Dad could notify Dianne and me if he needed assistance. Stan returned from a shopping trip with a doorbell and a duck call, neither of which was met with any enthusiasm. We decided to stick with our current process where I would check in on him every hour or so during the nights that he didn’t have the speaking valve.
After playing a spirited game of Oh Hell, where Mom won, we had Dad ready for bed shortly after 8:15 P.M. After Mom went to bed, Stan and I puttered around the house and talked for a while before we went to bed. Although we spoke every night on the phone, we had been living a sort of strange existence for the past few months, and it was nice to just sit and talk. We knew of couples who lived in different cities and “visited” occasionally, but I couldn’t live like that.
When we finally went to bed at 10:00 P.M., I set the timer on my iPhone to wake me every two hours, but I was so sensitive to the sounds emanating from the baby monitor, I was pretty sure that I’d be up more often than that to check Dad’s oxygen saturation levels and to suction him, and I was.