Holding steady in the ICU

August 25, 2018. When Dad had been hospitalized in 2015, extended time without eating had left him unable to swallow food without aspirating. Against all the odds and the prognostications of the naysayers, he had regained his ability to swallow again. The fear that he could suffer again from dysphagia gripped me, probably irrationally. Before Mom and I left home for the hospital this morning, I texted Adan, our friend and speech pathologist at Scott & White, for his advice. He told me to ask the attending physician for a speech consultation. Adan added that he was off work until Monday, but that he would alert Holly, the speech pathologist who was working this weekend. Holly was another Scott & White employee I really liked. Even if she couldn’t help Dad this weekend, just seeing her would provide calming relief to Mom and me.

steadyCross1Mom and I arrived at the hospital shortly before 8:30 A.M. When we entered Dad’s room, I checked the board to see the names of the nurses and aides who were assigned to him today. When I saw that Natalie was his nurse, I wondered if it could be the Natalie that we knew in 2015. Less than a minute later, I got my answer when she walked into the room. I was so thrilled and relieved to see her again that I ran to her and hugged her. In retrospect, I probably picked up all sorts of germs when I hugged her, but I didn’t care and would do it again. Not only was she an angel in blue scrubs, but she was also familiar with Dad’s medical history. Natalie, whom we had referred to as Daytime Natalie, usually worked in the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit (CTICU) and was helping out in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) for a few days. Dad had also been in the MICU unit for about a month in 2015, and another nurse came by to say hello, saying that she thought that we looked familiar.

Shortly after our reunion with the nursing staff, the nephrology resident stopped by and said that she didn’t think that Dad needed to be dialyzed today. However, she added that the nephrologist would stop by later during nephrology rounds, and he would make the final decision after seeing Dad.

hip3At 9:45 A.M., the doctor and his entourage of fellows and residents entered Dad’s room. He reiterated that Dad was very sick. His low blood pressure, which they were keeping in the safe range with Levophed, was affecting his liver, kidneys, and lungs. When I asked about a speech consultation, he said that Dad’s blood pressure would need to increase before they could consider letting him swallow food. He went on to say that as it was, Dad was in danger of aspirating his own saliva. When I mentioned that Dad’s face and extremities seemed very puffy from excess fluid, the doctor said that dialyzing him could have unintended consequences. Although Dad needed to have some of his excess fluid removed, removing the fluid could cause his blood pressure to drop, so dialyzing him today seemed out of the question.

The doctor asked me about whether we would consent to using a ventilator. I told him that I would view using a ventilator as a last resort. When I asked if we could use CPAP or BiPap for oxygen instead of a ventilator, he said that CPAP had some risks, but inserting the ventilator also carried risks because you had to anesthetize the patient. I was so frustrated with Dad’s situation, and it seemed that everything hinged on our ability to increase his blood pressure. I hoped that Mom and I would not be faced with this decision.

hip1Just when we thought that we understood Dad’s plan for the day, the dialysis nurse entered the room. By 11:30 A.M. she was finished with Dad’s setup, and his eight-hour session had begun. She told us that the nephrologist wanted to see if they could safely remove 300 ml/hour. Over an 8-hour period, he could have as much as 2,400 ml removed, which would be great if he could tolerate it. They had given him a liter of saline the other day to increase his blood pressure, so I was not overly optimistic that they could reach their goal. The dialysis machine monitored Dad’s blood pressure and would alarm if Dad’s blood pressure dropped. Dr. Idoux, the nephrologist, said that Dad might need to be dialyzed every day for a while if he could tolerate it. I prayed that we could safely remove all of the excess fluid that he had accumulated over the past 7 to 8 months.

Because I knew that she would be honest with me, I spoke with Natalie about the wisdom of my leaving Dad for about 20 hours. She said that he seemed to be trending in the right direction, although during her time as a nurse, she had seen patients die who were about to be discharged. On that happy note, I posted my mobile phone number in the room and ensured that the nurses would contact me if I needed to come home. Johnson City was only a two-hour drive from Temple, and we would return if she or another medical provider thought that Dad was in jeopardy.

After taking a short lunch break, Mom, Stan, and I returned to Dad’s room at 12:45 P.M. Dad was still on dialysis, and his blood pressure was still holding steady. Levophed was supporting his blood pressure, but they had not needed to increase the dosage to compensate for the loss of fluid. Dad seemed a bit more aware, but he still faded in and out. I prayed that he would not wake up, notice that he was on dialysis, and pull out the lines.

steadyCross2I hugged my parents goodbye, and Stan and I left for Johnson City at 2:35 P.M., hoping and praying that both of my parents would be OK until I returned home tomorrow morning.

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