Shaky progress, but still recovering

September 2, 2018. Sunday mornings at the hospital are usually pretty quiet, especially in the parking lot. On Sunday, I can get a decent parking space, unlike most other days. However, today while I was walking from my car to the hospital, the usual quiet was disrupted by a hospital employee who was chasing and calling after a resident “runner.” During the day, you periodically hear announcements about missing patients who wander away from their rooms, but rarely have the patients left the premises. I tried to imagine the backstory to this event that broke the monotony of the walk into the hospital.

shakycross2I arrived at Dad’s room at 7:45 A.M. His breakfast tray had arrived and was on his bedside table. He was still sleeping, but I was able to wake him easily. He finished about half of his breakfast before the physical therapist arrived. I never knew if we could expect to see a physical therapist on the weekend and I was pleased that Dad was being seen by a therapist during the holiday weekend. The session got off to a rocky start when the therapist accidentally dumped the contents of Dad’s urine bag on the floor. While she and the nurse cleaned the floor, which took a little over five minutes, Dad was able to sit without assistance on the side of the bed. The therapist was hesitant to have Dad stand up because his blood pressure was a bit low, but eventually, she decided to let him try. After standing, she retook his blood pressure, and it had elevated into the normal range. Because an aide didn’t assist her today, the therapist did not have Dad walk. Instead, she had him sit and stand a couple of times and then do some leg exercises on the bed.

After therapy, Dad was alert enough to swallow his morning pills of Midodrine and aspirin with juice.

This morning, Dad was fixated on dreams from last night about his father’s surgery and “what they’re doing to him at this place.” It was a confusing conversation because his father had died of a pulmonary embolism in 1957. I was able to get him to drink a couple of cups of coffee, hoping that it might help him clear his head and to stay awake.

shakycross3Unfortunately, the effect of the coffee was short-lived, and Dad fell asleep moments before Stan and Mom arrived. Although he was awake when Dr. Hunt, the attending physician, arrived, he was very groggy. When the doctor questioned Dad about why he was in the hospital, he said that he was in Temple because of a broken leg, which was closer to reality than his answers yesterday.

I, not to mention his night nurse, was concerned that Dad’s biological clock seemed reversed. From what I had heard from the nurses, he was awake most of the night and then slept during the day. When I asked the doctor about what we could do to switch Dad’s inner clock, he said that he would check with neurology. I told the doctor that at home, Dad often took ½ of a Simply Sleep pill (which was ¼ of the recommended dosage), so they should exercise some caution when prescribing sleeping medication. The doctor said that he would check the ingredients in these pills and note on Dad’s chart that they should start Dad on low dosages of any sleeping medication.

Mom and I left for church at 10:20 A.M. After church, Stan told me that Dad had been awake about 75% of the time that we were gone, but that he was still a little confused.

shakycross3Nephrologists base many of their healthcare decisions on the amount of liquid gold (urine) collected during a 24-hour period. When the nephrologists arrived for their morning rounds, Stan told them about the physical therapist’s mishap with the urine bag. However, they weren’t concerned and said that after taking diuretics yesterday, Dad had voided a liter of urine, so they would not dialize today. Instead, they would check his lab results tomorrow before dialysis to see if his kidneys were removing the toxins and electrolytes in his blood. Because Mom and Dad didn’t like the Scott & White dialysis center, we would need to arrange for Dad to receive dialysis at another location—one that wasn’t conveniently located near their home. This refusal to use the local dialysis center was an inconvenience that they would regret and that I wished that we could avoid. In any event, the nephrology team planned to get Dad started on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule that would continue following his discharge from the hospital.

Following our lunch at home, Stan, Mom, and I returned to the hospital at 2:30 P.M. Dad was sound asleep, but I was able to rouse him for about two seconds. I had been looking forward to this weekend so that Dad and Stan would have time to visit. Dad’s inability to stay awake was torpedoing my plans, and I hoped that the doctor would prescribe something for Dad that would enable him to sleep tonight. Tomorrow was Labor Day, and I wanted the guys to have time to visit and perhaps play cribbage.

shakycross2At 3:00 P.M., Kayla, Dad’s nurse, set up the creatinine test that had been ordered by the nephrologist. Before she was finished, Maryline, Dad’s aide, entered the room and said that she was going to bathe him. I told her that his toothbrush was in his travel shave kit that was in his closet, so she said that she would also brush his teeth. While Mom and I waited in the 6 North waiting room, Stan drove to Starbucks to get us some coffee. Kayla came and got us at 3:45 P.M. When I went back to Dad’s room, I noticed that his teeth looked shiny and clean.

shakycross3He slept for most of the afternoon but woke up for dinner, although he was still very confused. He kept saying that something was different. We couldn’t figure out what he was talking about and what was different. I wished that he could have given us some clue as to what he was talking about. After he finished eating, Mom, Stan, and I returned home. I said a quick prayer that Dad would get a good night’s sleep. He seemed to be progressing well, but I wanted him to be more awake during the day.

 

Little victories and setbacks during recovery

August 29, 2018. Before going to bed last night, I had washed a load of clothes and then placed them in the dryer with the intention of drying them in the morning. When I woke up at 4:00 A.M. this morning, I was pleased that I remembered the wet clothes, and started the dryer. Life’s little victories seemed important these days.

pushmecross5When Mom woke up at 6:00 A.M., she said that she was exhausted and that she was frustrated that she didn’t have time to do anything around the house. Last night, Stan and I had talked about trying to get Mom to stay at home and rest, so I took this opportunity to suggest that she stay at home this morning, and I would bring her with me to the hospital after lunch. She gratefully accepted my offer.

I arrived at Dad’s room shortly before 7:45 A.M. He was sleeping, but he was easy to wake. After saying hello, he told me that there had been about 15 people in the room overnight, which seemed implausible to me. I later learned from his night nurse that Dad had triggered his bed alarm by getting out of bed, and when she got to the room, she found him on the floor in a “praying” sort of position, probably trying to get back into bed. She had to call for assistance to get him back into the bed, but I doubt that the task required 15 people. However, keeping Dad in bed had proven to be one of life’s most difficult challenges. Thank goodness he didn’t injure himself.

pushmecross4Dr. Tanner, one of the nephrology residents, stopped by this morning and confirmed what the nurse had told me yesterday afternoon. Because of Dad’s low blood pressure, they were unable to remove more than 500 ml of fluid yesterday during dialysis. He said that they were going let Dad’s body rest today and perhaps try another dialysis session tomorrow. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I had prayed that Dad could maintain enough blood pressure to keep removing this excess fluid?

After Dr. Tanner left the room, someone from the food & nutrition department dropped off Dad’s breakfast tray. It was a messy process, but with some assistance from me, he ate about half of the food on his tray. The linen cart for our section of 6 North was conveniently located across from Dad’s room, and the nurses told me that I could use it. Before Dad started eating, I grabbed a bath towel and used it like a large bib, which saved me and the nurses a lot of clean-up time. I was happy to see that in the last couple of days, he had graduated from receiving Nepro through a feeding tube to a tray containing oatmeal, an omelet, an English muffin, a carton of Nepro, milk, and coffee. As nervous as I was about his status, I had to admit that his condition had improved a lot in the past five days.

At 10:00 A.M., I used the call button to summon the nurse. Once again, Dad had slid down the bed and needed to be repositioned. While Aspen, the nurse, was there, I asked her if she had seen the doctor or his PA or any of the therapists. I didn’t want to risk missing any of them by leaving for lunch at the wrong time. Aspen replied that she had not seen any of the providers this morning. I spent the next hour trying to engage Dad in some sort of meaningful conversation while he drifted in and out of sleep.

pushmecross2At 11:00 A.M., Katherine, the occupational therapist, arrived. She had barely started getting information from Dad when Amber, the physical therapist, and her student, Shelby, arrived. The room became a hubbub of activity when the nephrologist also arrived. It was positively uncanny how all of the care providers seemed to arrive at the same time. Thankfully, the nephrologist stopped by, only to confirm what Dr. Tanner, his resident, had said earlier. I was glad that his visit was brief. I was eager for Dad to get started with his physical and occupational therapy.

Within moments of the nephrologist’s departure, a knock at the door announced the arrival of Pastor Tom. When he entered the room, he looked at Katherine and said, “Hi, sister.” It seemed that Katherine was also a member of my parents’ church. I know that it doesn’t make any difference in a person’s care, but I always felt better when I was able to make a personal connection with the health care provider, so Pastor Tom’s visit seemed fortuitous. Pastor Tom stayed only long enough to exchange enthusiastic greetings with my father. Although he was there for only a couple of minutes, seeing him always acted like a shot of adrenaline for Dad, which was just what was needed at that moment.

pushmecross1Amber and Shelby were able to get Dad to sit on the side of the bed. While he sat on the side of the bed, Katherine exercised his arms and checked his toes and legs. Katherine and Amber then worked together to get Dad to stand up, with me cheering him on from across the room. By 11:20 A.M., Dad was exhausted and ready to lie down.

As the occupational and physical therapists were getting Dad resituated and comfortable in bed, Adan, the speech therapist, entered the room to ask if Dad had been receiving his food trays. I told him that the breakfast tray was great, but I questioned the wisdom of giving Dad rice for dinner last night. He agreed and said that he would modify Dad’s diet to dysphagia III so that his trays would not include loose foods like rice. When I asked him if he knew anything about Dr. Hunt, who was starting his week-long rotation today, he said that he thought that the doctor was cool.

pushmecross3So far, I’d seen everyone today that I wanted to see, with one exception: I had not seen Dr. Hunt. However, it was now 11:40 A.M., and I needed to get home for lunch. After a quick lunch, Mom and I returned to Dad’s room at 12:50 P.M. When I reached out to touch his right arm, I noticed that his gown was damp on his right shoulder. When I mentioned the damp gown to Aspen, she said that while I was gone, they tried to give him a pill and some water had spilled on his gown. I don’t know if I could swallow a pill while slumped down in bed, especially if I was in a groggy and confused state. I didn’t question her more, but I assumed that he was able to swallow the pill.

Shortly after 1:30 P.M., Dr. Hunt arrived and began to summarize Dad’s current condition. During his summarization, he mentioned the presence of a blood clot in Dad’s neck, which was new news to me. I knew that he was receiving a blood thinner, but the doctors had only mentioned the likelihood of platelets clotting as the reason for giving him a blood thinner. Doctor Hunt mentioned that he had requested a consult with hematology/oncology to help him determine if Dad had developed an intolerance to heparin or not. He also said that he didn’t want Dad released from the hospital to a rehab facility until we had established a baseline for his kidneys and weight, and a baseline for his mentation. He wanted to know if neurology thought that his confusion was a permanent or transient condition. Because Dad had fallen last night, the doctor wanted to ensure that Dad had not fallen on his head. For that reason, he ordered a CT scan. I was skeptical about the need for the neurology consult and the CT scan. Usually, when Dad fell out of bed, his fall was more like a slide that started with his feet. The cynic in me thought that all of these consultations and tests were ways in which to inflate the hospital bill. As long as the tests didn’t harm or hurt him, I reluctantly agreed with the doctor’s suggestions.

Within the hour, a gurney appeared outside of Dad’s room, and he was transported to the x-ray department for his CT scan.

pushmecross4At 3:15 P.M., a couple of doctors from the hematology/oncology department visited us to talk about some of the problems that Dad might be having with heparin and HIT. They said that sometimes they could substitute Argatroban for the heparin, but in Dad’s case, they thought that this drug was too harsh. Because Argatroban is metabolized in the liver, it would be too hard on Dad’s liver, which had been under stress during this hospital stay. They said that they also had been viewing Dad’s white and red blood cells under a microscope and had noticed a slight change in their shape, which might indicate the start of a cancerous condition. However, the only way that they could know for sure was to order a bone marrow test, and we all agreed that at Dad’s age, we didn’t need to go down this path. They speculated that his liver problems probably started with the sharp drop in his blood pressure the day after his latest surgery. Although his blood pressure had rebounded, it would take more than a few days for the liver to recover.

When Mom and I left at 5:00 P.M., I had some very mixed feelings about the day. On the one hand, he had started his physical therapy, and the doctor was talking about Dad’s discharge from the hospital. On the other hand, we were discussing blood clots, the possibility of a cancerous condition, and the need for a CT scan to determine whether he had sustained a head injury. Although Mom felt better after having spent the morning at home, Dad’s morning had seemed a bit more positive than his afternoon, and I was sorry that she had missed it.

 

 

Out of ICU, but not the sort of day we had envisioned

August 28, 2018. Mom and I arrived at the hospital at 8:00 A.M. This was Dad’s first day out of the ICU, and we were optimistic about the day. When we arrived at room 634 North, Dad was sleeping, and I thought that he looked terrible. His face was more swollen than I had ever seen it. Also, I was concerned about his coloring, so I wondered about his oxygen saturation. We were able to wake him, but he kept dropping off to sleep in mid-sentence. His oxygen mask had been removed, and I didn’t know if he kept dropping off to sleep because of low oxygen, fluid overload, or if he was just naturally sleepy. He complained of constant interruptions during the night and said that someone had come into his room this morning, but I was never sure if he was remembering dreams or reality.

transitionCross1At 8:15 A.M., Conner, Dad’s nurse, entered Dad’s room for the first time since the shift change at 7:00 A.M. Following our introductions, she accessed Dad’s chart and told us that Dr. Jennifer Moran, the attending physician for 6 North, had asked for someone in Orthopedics to look at Dad’s surgical wound vac. It had been in place for more than five days, and it seemed to the doctor that it might be clogged. When I asked her if Dad was scheduled to receive physical therapy, she said that only speech therapy was on his schedule, but she would ask for physical or occupational therapy today.

When I asked if he was scheduled for interventional radiology (IR) to have the clog in his fistula removed, she confirmed that he was on the IR schedule for 1:00 P.M. today. With the IR appointment scheduled for the afternoon, I was fairly certain that Dad would not receive dialysis today. However, his ability to receive dialysis hinged on whether or not IR could clear the clog in his fistula.

transitionCross2I had barely finished speaking with Conner when someone from the Transportation team arrived to take Dad to IR. I should have learned a long time ago that schedules in the hospital were fluid and much like those of remodeling contractors. To help the Transportation aide prepare and move Dad to the gurney, Conner summoned Miguel, Dad’s aide (CNA). I learned then that Dad had indeed remembered reality and that it was Miguel who had interrupted Dad’s sleep early this morning.

Because someone had to sign a consent form before IR could perform the procedure, one of us needed to accompany him to IR. Either one of us could sign, but we both wanted to accompany Dad, who was now sleeping soundly on the gurney. We arrived at IR at 8:35 A.M. Ten minutes later, Nathan, an IR nurse took Dad’s vitals and obtained some background information about Dad from us.

transitionCross2One of the interventional radiologists is a member of FUMC-Temple, my parents’ church. I was pleased when I saw that it was Dr. Dollar who entered Dad’s bay. I reminded him that Dad had been a patient of his twice before and told him that Mom and I had attended his daughter’s confirmation. We joked that the pastor would give the doctor hell if the procedure didn’t go well. Before Mom and I left Dad, Dr. Dollar mentioned that because the attending physician wanted to know if Dad had Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT), they would test him for that. Because Dialysis patients usually received Heparin before and during dialysis to prevent blood clots, they could develop HIT over time. We woke Dad, kissed him, and let him know that we would be waiting in his room for him. At 9:20 A.M., Kristi, the IR surgical nurse, wheeled Dad from his bay and Mom and I found our way to the x-ray waiting room.

Mom needed to have some of her heart medicine prescriptions refilled. Unfortunately, her primary care physician who wrote the prescriptions had recently retired. I thought that Mom’s cardiologist should prescribe all of her heart medications, and we decided to schedule an appointment for Mom to see her. Because Mom’s cardiologist works in the Scott and White Heart Center, which is located on the first floor of the hospital, we decided to spend some of our wait time scheduling an appointment.

transitionCross2At 10:25 A.M., Mom and I walked back to the x-ray waiting room to check on Dad’s status. We were told that they were almost finished and that we could wait there to speak with the surgical nurse. A few minutes later, Kristi, who had assisted Dr. Dollar, said that they were able to remove the clot and that he should be able to have dialysis at any time, which was excellent news. Because this procedure had been successful, Dad would not require another procedure to insert a dialysis catheter, which could have increased his odds at contracting an infection.

We arrived at Dad’s room about 15 minutes before he did and in time to speak to the nephrology team, which was making their morning rounds. They asked us if we knew the results of Dad’s procedure. When I relayed what Kristi had told us, they said that they would schedule Dad for dialysis this afternoon. I had been very worried about Dad’s apparent fluid overload condition this morning and was pleased that he would have some of that excess fluid removed today. He had had a lot of dialysis in the eight days that he had been here. I prayed that he could maintain his blood pressure until all of the excess fluid was removed.

When Dad returned to his room, Conner changed the bandages that protected his recent skin tears and took his vitals, which were great. She also said that she would remove the annoying wound vac that had been left on by the orthopedic surgery team. It didn’t seem to be helping Dad’s situation and was just another annoyance for him.

transitionCross1Mom and I left for lunch at 11:30 A.M. so that we could get back to Dad’s room before he went to dialysis at 1:00 P.M. However, when we arrived at Dad’s room at 12:45 P.M., he was already gone. At 1:00 P.M., Conner stopped by Dad’s room. She told us that she had just returned from accompanying him to the dialysis room, and would be glad to take us there so that we could be with Dad. I had a deadline to attend to and opted to stay in Dad’s room while Mom went to sit with Dad.

At 2:30 P.M., Mary, a hospital pharmacist, came to Dad’s room to ask me about his at-home medications. She wondered if Dad was using more than one pharmacy because most of his medications had not been refilled in quite some time. I found this news disturbing, yet not surprising. Dad often (defiantly) said that he was not taking his medications. There was one, Renvela, that I hoped that she would find had been refilled at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital, but I wasn’t holding out much hope.

transitionCross2At 3:40 P.M., Dr. Potter and Dr. Murdette stopped by to check on Dad’s fistula. Dr. Potter is Scott & White’s new transplant surgeon and had replaced Dr. Gregory Jaffers, who had recently retired. The transplant team performs the fistula surgery, and Dr. Jaffers had performed Dad’s fistula surgery in 2016. Dr. Potter said that he had been in surgery all day and hadn’t had a chance to see Dad and had hoped to meet him. I assumed that Dr. Potter had heard about the clot in Dad’s fistula and thought that he should meet him should he have to repair the fistula. I told him that the IR procedure had gone well and that Dad was having dialysis now.

Dad and Mom returned from dialysis at 5:15 P.M. As Conner was getting him resituated in the room, she told me that they were able to remove only 500 ml from him today because his blood pressure kept dropping. After receiving that disappointing news, I asked her about the results from his latest labs, which were run this morning. It seemed that his WBC count had jumped from a normal range of 10 yesterday to an elevated 14 this morning. I was very concerned that Dad was fighting a new infection.

transitionCross1Dr. Moran stopped by at 6:15 P.M. I expressed my alarm at Dad’s elevated WBC count, but she didn’t think that it was an issue because he didn’t have an elevated fever and his blood pressure was good. She told me that today was the last day of her rotation. Starting tomorrow morning, Dr. Hunt would take over as the attending physician. If Dad was developing an infection, she said that Dr. Hunt would be a good attending physician for Dad; in addition to being an internist, he was also certified for infectious diseases.

Mom and I left the hospital at 7:15 P.M., tired and unsure of Dad’s status. I hoped that Dad’s uptick in his WBC count was of no concern. Mom and I were both tired, and I was now worried about her continued weight loss. She suddenly seemed frail to me and she had no energy. She also had no appetite and I could not get her to eat more than a couple of bites of dinner; however, she did eat an ice cream cone.

transitionCross3I had only planned for a short trip to Temple for Dad’s surgery on August 22, and I was now out of clean clothes. It seemed like my trip would be extended for some indeterminate time, so I had to wash some clothes before I could go to bed. I was tired and frustrated and capped off my evening by being a jerk and snapping at my exhausted mother.

Before going to bed, I called my husband, Stan, and updated him on the activities of the day. Before we hung up, Stan said that tomorrow would be a better day. From his lips to God’s ear.

 

 

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.

Tap dancing along the slippery slope to recovery

Before Dad’s hospitalization, his organs had been in pretty good working order. However, the aspiration and sepsis events impacted his kidneys, which resulted in his dependence on dialysis. To say that my father hated dialysis is an understatement. He hated the inconvenience of it, how it interfered with his ability to travel, and how much it tired him. In addition to the four-hour sessions that impacted his daily life, he also had issues with the dialysis center. Although the place was spacious and had nice dialysis beds, Dad’s opinion of the facility changed drastically when he moved from being a dialysis catheter patient to a fistula patient.

tappingCross1Because of the potential for infection, only RNs can work with dialysis catheter patients. However, techs are trained to hook up dialysis patients who have fistulas. My father quickly learned that not all techs are created equal. Dad had a problem with bleeding, which could be reduced or avoided if the tech took care when removing the needles at the end of the session. A couple of careless techs caused bleeding that the nurses at the dialysis center could not stop within 60 minutes, which was their threshold for calling 911. As you might expect, going to the emergency room significantly increased the time required to solve the problem. During one of Dad’s trips to the ER, the paramedics stopped the bleeding during the two-mile trip to the hospital, but because of their protocol, they still had to take him into the ER, and blood was drawn as part of the normal procedure (ironically, to ensure that he had not lost too much blood). If that wasn’t enough, my parents paid a $200 co-pay for the privilege of visiting the ER.

I generally heard repeated versions of Dad’s war stories during each phone call and visit to my parents’ house. I inherited many of Dad’s unfortunate circulatory traits, so I’m pretty sure the bleeding episodes would have also left me cold, if not bitter. It didn’t help that the decorum of the techs seemed a bit unprofessional and cavalier, and sometimes inappropriate. During my few visits to the dialysis center, I wondered if similar behavior by some of the techs might warrant a call to the Human Resources department.

tappingCross3Several years earlier, my mother had been the president of the Colorado Mesa University (CMU) foundation. Their annual meeting was scheduled for November 2017, and past presidents usually attended this meeting. Dad wanted Mom to attend, and he wanted to accompany her, which meant that he would need dialysis during their trip. CMU is located in Grand Junction, Colorado. Although Grand Junction and Temple are similar in size and population, I suspected that Grand Junction would not have a dialysis center that could match Temple’s. According to my parents, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Although it fell short in square footage, it whomped the Temple facility in the professionalism of its staff. When Dad asked one of their techs why they didn’t have chairs, she replied that she wouldn’t have had time to sit even if they had chairs. This environment contrasted sharply with that of the Temple facility.

I wasn’t surprised when Dad started needling Dr. Issac, his nephrologist, to test him to see if he still needed dialysis. Unlike most of the dialysis patients, Dad often had only the minimum amount of fluid removed during his dialysis session. Although Dad’s tests showed that he still required dialysis, Dad was able to convince Dr. Issac to reduce the time from 4 hours to 3-1/2 hours. Dad eventually got the doctor to reduce the time to 3 hours, which enabled him to get home before 11:00 A.M.

tappingCross2Because Dad received co-pay bills for physician visits to the dialysis center, he decided to take advantage of his VA benefits. Temple is near Fort Hood and has a large VA facility not far from my parents’ home. During Dad’s first visit to the VA’s nephrologist, that doctor allegedly told Dad that he didn’t think that Dad needed dialysis, which alarmed me. Dr. Issac had been treating Dad for two years, and this VA doctor had seen Dad for 15 minutes.

Now that Dad was convinced that the local dialysis center was less than stellar, he despised it more than ever and embraced the comments of the VA doctor. Armed with these convenient comments from the VA doctor, Dad was able to convince Dr. Issac to run another series of tests to check Dad’s need for dialysis. When reviewing the test results with Dad, Dr. Isaac said that Dad’s condition was borderline, and suggested that nephrology personnel closely follow Dad while he took diuretics. If the trial of diuretics worked, Dr. Issac would remove Dad from dialysis.

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For all intents and purposes, Dad had approximately three liters of fluid removed each week, which would still need to be removed. With my parents’ blessing, Dr. Issac called me to ensure that I understood his plan so that I would be knowledgeable enough to discuss the process with my parents. In short, the doctor wanted Dad to go to the dialysis center once a week for blood work, weigh-in, and blood pressure check to see how well the diuretics handled Dad’s excess fluid. Dr. Issac prescribed that Dad take three tablets daily. I don’t know what Dad expected, but the diuretic had an immediate effect. Dad said that there was no way that he would take three pills a day. As a matter of fact, he said that he might take only one pill a week.

tappingCross1Dad went to the dialysis center on December 11 for his first weekly checkup, and according to my parents, the results were fine. When the nurse tried to schedule another appointment for December 20, Dad said that he would not see any doctors during the Christmas holiday. I was disappointed because I had wanted to accompany him (and the doctor wanted me to accompany Dad) on this appointment. While I was visiting my parents during the Christmas holiday, someone from the Scott & White dialysis center called the house and scheduled a follow-up appointment for Dad on January 26, 2018. I was concerned about the significant interval between visits and the lack of supervision during this test, especially now that Dad was taking the diuretics on a haphazard basis.

On January 21, 2018, I emailed Dr. Issac and updated him on what my father had and had not been doing. I asked if he could revisit Dad’s prescription during Dad’s January 26 appointment so that Dad might be more inclined to take the pills. I wasn’t expecting a response from Dr. Issac, so I didn’t log on to Dad’s MyChart account to see if the doctor had replied.

tappingCross2Unfortunately, the doctor did reply to my email the next day stating that Dad did not have any appointments scheduled with physicians at Scott & White, and then he asked me who Dad was seeing. My parents learned about the non-existent appointment when they showed up at the dialysis center on January 26. They were so mad that they vowed never to return to the dialysis center or see Dr. Issac. I was also very upset, but for different reasons. Not only did I respect and like Dr. Issac, but it had also now been more than a month since Dad had started self-medicating without the knowledge of a physician. Worse still, the more that I encouraged him to take the pills, the more that he dug in his heels to do as he pleased. The more that he resisted taking the prescribed drugs, the more I worried that he was dancing too close to the edge.

Birthdays, emergency room miracles, and healthcare milestones

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.

IMG_1878The 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.

birthdayCross1Like 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.

IMG_1947After 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.

birthdayCross4After 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.

birthdayCross4When 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.

birthdayCross3For 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.

 

Reaching another milestone: PEG removal!

April 13, 2016. My alarm woke me, but it was only just a little after 2:00 A.M., and the alarm was in my dream. I was able to get back to sleep and woke up at 3:45 A.M. when the alarm actually went off. I think that I inherited these wake-up dreams from my father. He often wakes up early from naps, swearing that Mom woke him.

While I worked, Dad sat at his desk in my parents’ office and finished preparing their tax return. Shortly after breakfast, Brenda, the home care physical therapist, called to see if she and her supervisor, Kathleen, could stop by later in the morning to assess Dad’s progress.

pegOutCross4I had to drive back to Houston this afternoon. I was already fighting to stay awake and decided to take a short nap during my lunch break, so I missed seeing the physical therapists when they arrived at 11:30 A.M. Dad was walking pretty well, but his recent back pain had affected his balance somewhat. Kathleen said that Brenda would focus more on his core muscles to help Dad with his balance.

Shortly after I woke up from my nap, the three of us left for Dad’s 2:20 P.M. appointment with the gastroenterologist. When we arrived, Dad weighed 151 pounds, his blood pressure was 112/69, and his temperature was 96 degrees. In the exam room, after Julie, the dietitian, asked about Dad’s protein and caloric intake, I was a little anxious when she said that Dad needed to consume an additional 20 grams of protein each day.

When Dr. Pfanner entered the exam room, he helped Dad up on the exam table and quickly removed the PEG tube. Dad didn’t feel anything, and Mom and I glanced away for a millisecond and missed seeing the “balloon” as the doctor removed it. For the better part of eight months, Dad had had a hole in his 87-year old stomach, and now I was concerned about how long it would take to heal and close. When I asked the doctor about how long Dad would have to abstain from eating and drinking, I was shocked when he said that Dad couldn’t eat anything for 4-6 hours, and then he should consume only Nepro until tomorrow. Today was the second time in four months that I had been amazed at the speed in which some of our body parts could heal. Dad’s trach stoma had healed in two days, and now his stomach would be ready to consume liquid in six hours. The epidermis doesn’t heal nearly as fast. I have had paper cuts that took three times as long to heal.

coffeeCupWe had driven to the doctor’s office in two cars. After the appointment, I helped my parents into their car, drove to Starbucks for some coffee, and then started my drive to Houston at 3:19 P.M. The traffic was relatively light, but I was feeling drowsy when I reached Waller, approximately 40 miles from home. Fortunately, Waller had a Buc-ee’s, one of the best rest stops in Texas. I stopped to stretch my legs and buy another cup of coffee. As I walked toward the exit, I met a wall of teenagers. Five buses had just unloaded more than 100 kids. I thanked my lucky stars for my perfect timing.

I got home shortly before 6:30 P.M.

April 14. According to Mom, Dad didn’t experience any problems during dialysis today. Although his blood pressure was a little low, it was not low enough to require midodrine to elevate it. He still complained of back pain, but he didn’t feel any discomfort at the site of his PEG stoma.

I asked Mom if Dad had tried to find the thrill on his arm every morning as he had been instructed by his surgeon, and her response was not what I had hoped. She said that they often have trouble finding it and that it’s not as strong as they would have thought. I told her to ask the dialysis nurses about it and that it’s too important to ignore. She agreed that asking the dialysis nurse was a good idea and agreed to ask one of them on Saturday, two days from now.

When the home care nurse stopped by, she said that she thought that Dad might be suffering from adhesions. I can’t imagine how she came to that conclusion, and Mom never mentioned where these adhesions might be located or what the nurse suggested that we should do about them. On a positive note, Dad’s vitals were good. Evidently, this nurse had come by the house about three months ago and was impressed by Dad’s progress since then. Before she left, the nurse helped Dad and Mom find the thrill on Dad’s fistula.

pegOutCross2April 15. Kristen, Dad’s swallow therapist, stopped by for her final session with Dad. Before she left, she said that Dad could start trying to swallow his pills. She encouraged him to start with very small pills and coat them in applesauce. Dad had been crushing the pills and mixing them with applesauce. Evidently, some of the pills tasted vile, so being able to swallow them would be a welcome change. Still, the thought of his swallowing pills made me nervous. I had been taking liquid vitamins for several years, and I suggested to Mom that we should ask Dr. Martin if Dad could swallow the pills with the liquid vitamins. When mixed with water, the liquid was a thickened liquid and quite slippery, which I thought might ease swallowing.

April 16. Dad had dialysis this morning. According to Mom, they removed about 1,500 ml of fluid. After a morning of running errands, I started my drive back to Temple, leaving my husband on the links with his golf buddy.

The highway from Houston to Temple passes through small towns, many of which get their revenue from speeding drivers. After my numerous trips to Temple, I knew when to slow down. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying attention and resumed the 70 MPH speed a tad too early. I was stopped just outside of Somerville and got my second warning since Dad’s hospitalization last May. warningWhen the very nice officer handed me my driver’s license and warning, he advised me to watch my speed today. Because of several festivals in the area, there were many more patrol officers monitoring speeds than usual. As I eased back onto the highway, I noticed that I had stopped just a few yards shy of the posted 70 MPH sign. After setting my cruise control at 72 MPH, I arrived in Temple at 2:03 P.M.

With some assistance from Mom, Dad prepared a spaghetti dinner. Unfortunately, shortly after our nice dinner, Dad and I had another knock-down drag-out argument about his health and attitude about taking care of himself. Unlike so many other times, we eventually had a meeting of the minds and we agreed on a plan for managing his pain and boosting his protein intake.

April 17. Dad didn’t feel like going to church today, and the weather was dreary. The three of us enjoyed a nice breakfast of homemade cinnamon rolls, and then I worked on my computer until Mom and I left for church.

pegOutCross1After the church service, we mentioned to our friend Sue, who was also the nurse practitioner at the dialysis center, that Dad was still experiencing a lot of pain. She said that she would order x-rays for him. I also asked her about medical alert bracelets for dialysis patients with fistulas. For the rest of his life, he can never have blood drawn or his blood pressure taken on his left arm. She said that she thought that we could get him such a medical bracelet.

After a yummy lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, Mom and I went outside to cover up some cantaloupe seedlings. We were expecting stormy weather, and she wanted to protect the young seedlings so that they wouldn’t drown. After watching the depressing evening news and eating dinner, we played Oh Hell, and Mom beat Dad by three points.

April 18. Dad had a 10:00 A.M. post-op appointment with Dr. Jaffers, the surgeon who had built the fistula in Dad’s left arm. While waiting for the doctor, Dad vomited in the exam room. According to Mom, he had just taken his morning meds before we left the house. The last time that he vomited, he had just taken his meds on an empty stomach. Other than the vomiting in the exam room, the doctor thought that Dad was healing well and that his fistula should be cured and ready to use during hemodialysis by early June.

pegOutCross3I thought that we also had an appointment for x-rays, but when we arrived in the radiology department, Dad was not on their schedule. I texted Sue because she had told me that she would enter an order for the x-rays.  Evidently, she had encountered a problem with her computer, and then she became distracted and forgot to enter the orders. While we were in the radiology waiting room, the order appeared, and Dad was called by the technician after a short wait.

The x-ray process was painful for Dad. Although x-rays aren’t painful, getting up on the hard table, being repositioned on the table, and getting down from the table was painful. I hoped that these x-rays would show something useful and actionable.

During an afternoon meeting with my manager, I learned that she had accepted a position in another business unit. She had been a wonderful manager and very supportive while I’ve been working remotely from my parents’ house. The two of us had made a great team, and it felt like she was breaking up the band. Although I knew that this move would benefit her, I was a bit apprehensive about how it would affect me.

I stopped working at 5:00 P.M. for our happy hour. After a nice dinner of leftovers, we played Oh Hell, and I lost again.

rainBefore going to sleep, I called my husband in Houston. Evidently, Houston had received between 9-15 inches of rain, depending on the area of town. According to the news, this was the worst rain event since tropical storm Allison in 2001 and has been dubbed the Tax Day Flood. Stan said that our house was OK. He didn’t know how much rain we received at our house. All he knew was that our 5.5” rain gauge had overflowed.