June 18, 2016. Stan and I were in Temple to celebrate my birthday, which had been on June 9 and Father’s Day, which was this Sunday. This weekend marked the return to our tradition of celebrating Father’s Day and my birthday at the same time. On my last birthday, Dad had been unable to swallow, let alone eat cake. His condition had remained unchanged for Stan’s birthday in July, Mom’s birthday in August, and his birthday in October. During that time, I had become resolute that when Dad could eat cake again, I would bake a cake that represented all of the missed birthdays. I envisioned a cake of four layers: a layer for each of us.
I’m partial to rum cake, Mom likes carrot cake, Dad likes chocolate, and Stan likes apple pie, so he would have to be happy with a reasonable cake alternative. To help expedite the process, I purchased four boxes of cake mix and pulled out the cake pans.
The finished cake sported numeral-shaped candles, each candle representing the second digit of our ages: 1, 2, 8, and 9. I had not considered the weights of the layers, and when I was finished, the cake resembled something that you might see in a Dr. Seuss book. I also hadn’t anticipated how much extra cake we’d have. Needless to say, we would not run out of dessert for quite some time. We all were able to enjoy our favorite day, and I was thankful that all four of us could eat cake.
July 1. Today was a big day for Dad. Dr. Jaffers had decided that the fistula was sufficiently cured and could now be used for hemodialysis. After more than 13 months of receiving dialysis via a tunneled hemodialysis catheter, today the catheter would be removed. He had had this catheter since September 29, 2016, just over nine months.
Like many of the other procedures that Dad had had, this one would be simple and would be performed in the interventional radiology (IR) department by Dr. Dollar, the same interventional radiologist who placed the catheter in September.
The three of us arrived at the Interventional Radiology department at 12:30 P.M., and Dad was wheeled away in a gurney approximately 20 minutes later.
The nurse brought him back to the recovery area at 1:40 P.M. It seemed that the procedure had not been as simple as anticipated. Because the catheter had been in place for nine months, his body had sort of glommed on to it. As we left, the nurse told us that Dad would need to wear his dressing until Sunday afternoon, two days from now. If he showered before that time, he would need to protect the dressing with a shower shield. Once the dressing was removed, he could shower like a regular person. This news had been a long time coming and was like music to our ears, especially Dad’s.
After dinner, I asked Dad if he or Mom had checked his dressing since he had come home. Mom said that she hadn’t checked it, so we asked Dad to unbutton his shirt for us. The dressing was very bloody, and even Dad was concerned about the pool of blood that had collected. It was now after 7:00 P.M. on a Friday and holiday weekend. This was the second time that we had scheduled a simple procedure on a holiday weekend, which made me question our sanity.
We located the papers that the nurse gave Dad when he was discharged. I called the after-hours phone number and asked to speak with the on-call IR resident. After being connected to Dr. Jeffrey Rhea, he asked me a series of questions to help him decide our best course of action. I asked him if I could text him a photo of the dressing area. He liked that idea and at 7:30 P.M., I sent him the first photo. He called me and asked for another photo that included more of the clavicle area, which was the region of his primary concern.
After reviewing both photos, he said that he didn’t see anything emergent and suggested that we stop by the IR clinic on Saturday after dialysis. As much as Dad hates the Scott & White emergency department, he, Mom, and I decided that he should get rid of the oversaturated dressing before tomorrow afternoon. I texted the doctor and told him that we were going to the emergency room. While en route to the hospital, he texted me as asked for our ETA. When we stopped at a signal, I responded that we were less than five minutes from the hospital.
At the hospital, I was thankful for Dad’s accessible parking placard because, except for the accessible parking spots, the parking lot was full. With me nervously holding on to the back of Dad’s shirt, he walked into the hospital on his own. As I had expected, the waiting room was packed. In the intake line, one person was ahead of us and speaking with the clerk. Off to the side, I noticed a woman telling a hospital employee that her daughter had arrived earlier in an ambulance and was in triage. She was late getting inside because it took her several minutes to find a parking space. When the person in front of us left, I held Dad back and told him that we would let the concerned mother go ahead of us. The slight delay would serve us well.
When it was Dad’s turn, he explained to the clerk why he was there. When she finished questioning him and completing her paperwork, she told Dad to raise his arm so that she could fasten his ID tag around his wrist. At that moment, Dr. Rhea seemed to appear out of thin air, grabbed the ID bracelet, and said that he’d take care of us. He then told me and Dad, who was now in a wheelchair, to follow him to the end of the waiting room. We waited there while he gathered supplies from a couple of cabinets. As he was about to remove Dad’s dressing in the middle of the hallway, I reminded him that we were sitting in the middle of the main thoroughfare between the waiting room and the examination rooms. He acknowledged that the location might be problematic and had us move out of the waiting room, although we were still in a hallway. One of the ER nurses gave us a questioning look when she saw my father and all the blood from his dressing. I laughed and said, “Is this the OR?” She replied, “No, this is the ER.” Dr. Rhea quickly explained that he was just changing a dressing and would be out of the way in a few minutes.
When Dr. Rhea was finished, he wheeled Dad back to the waiting area and toward the entrance of the hospital. As we wheeled Dad to the parking lot, we thanked the resident doctor profusely. I’m fairly certain that our resident violated hospital protocol, but we appreciated his “git ‘er done” attitude. This trip to the hospital was truly an emergency room miracle: we completed the trip from home, to the hospital, and home again in less than an hour. When we got home, Dad was wide awake and was in the mood for a long game of Oh Hell, which he won. After a day like today, he deserved to win.
For all intents and purposes, this surgery marked the official end to Dad’s health care odyssey—a mere 420 days after he entered the hospital for elective heart surgery. He would still need to gain some weight and strength, but he was now driving, attending church, and getting around my parents’ acre lot with little to no assistance from his cane, and he used his walker only when he went to dialysis. He had beaten the incredible odds against him and was a walking miracle.
As we looked back on the events of the past year, we acknowledged that there were a lot of couldas, wouldas, and shouldas, but we can’t change the past. We’d have to chalk up our experiences as lessons learned that we could share with others. As I had learned from my own experience with the hospital, it was easy to get sucked into the medical system and lose control of the situation and maybe even lose money. Having advocates and second opinions are vital for negotiating the healthcare industry.