2 Parents, 2 Hospitals, and the Beginning of My Health Care Approach
One of the defining moments in my life as a caregiver happened in early 2004. Just days into the New Year, my father shared with me that he had blockage in his carotid arteries that was going to require surgery. My mother, whose lungs were ravaged by Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and who was having significant short term memory problems, was worried sick. After much discussion about the quality of medical care available in the West Texas city where they lived, my father agreed to see a cardiologist in Austin and to plan surgery there.
Fast forward two weeks, and my father was checked into the hospital. I had taken off work to stay with my mother in a hotel since she no longer had the reflexes or memory to deal with city driving, much less the strength to lift her oxygen concentrator out of my parents' van. My parents also brought their miniature schnauzer, Zasu, who needed regular walks outside the hotel grounds; that quickly turned into my responsibility.
Dad's operation went smoothly and Dad, albeit groggy, was on his way to slowly recovering. Mom seemed to handle the medical events with her usual calmness. But two days later, a minor complication happened in Dad's recovery, requiring doctors to extend his stay at the hospital. Mom and I were concerned at this point, but the doctors assured us that this extended stay was a precaution.
The next morning when we woke up, Mom looked a little gray and her breathing was labored. I tried to calm her down, and brought the medications for her to take. A little while later, Mom - still agitated - said she wanted to go see her pulmonologist (who also was located in Austin). I wasn't sure she could get in without an appointment, but Mom's forceful nature meant we were heading to her doctor's office.
Slowly, laboredly, she made her way to the elevator and then down the hallway to the pulmonologist's office. In deed, her doctor couldn't see her, but the nurse practitioner did. She noted that Mom's level of stress was putting a strain on her heart and her breathing, and that she needed to relax. The nurse practitioner said she would try to get the doctor to prescribe something to ease Mom's anxiety. If that didn't work, the nurse practitioner said that I should take Mom to the emergency room.
Shortly thereafter, Mom and I left the doctor's office and I talked her into going to lunch at one of our favorite restaurants before we headed to visit Dad and then to pick up her prescription. Mom ate a little, but as soon as we got back into the car, her anxiety returned (as did her labored breathing). She asked me to take her to the hospital.
I pulled into the emergency room's entrance and helped Mom into a wheelchair. I pushed her into the foyer, placed her name on the waiting list, and then went back outside to park the van. Soon after I returned, the checking-in process began - and I realized how totally unprepared I was for the situation. I rummaged through Mom's purse for a period of time to find the identification needed to admit her. I tried to answer the other questions, but was often stumped. "What medications does she take?" the admitting official asked. "I have no idea, but I know it's a lot," I replied. I finally had to call my father at the other hospital so he could recite Mom's medications. I shared these with the nurse, but also suggested calling Mom's pulmonologist to get the latest list so my father seemed to be unsure of some of some of the dosages.
As Mom was wheeled into the emergency room, I felt like I was starring in a horror film in which I was being metaphorically drawn and quartered. My parents were in two different hospitals less than a mile away from each other. I wasn't sure how I could handle the next few hours or days of providing care and support to them (and then there was the dog). I also realized that the haphazard way that my parents were maintaining their medical updates could ultimately shatter all of our lives.
Shaken to the core, I got a call that my father was going to be released from his hospital that evening. After picking him up, we went to see Mom at her hospital. And then over dinner, I told my father that things were going to need to change. I needed an updated list of all medications for both of them. I needed to hear a report after each doctor's visit. And I needed transparency in knowing what each parent's health condition was.
That cold winter day in Austin served as the catalyst in building a system within our family where we communicated what was going on with each person's health and ensured that medical knowledge wasn't kept with one person. It hasn't been easy to coordinate the sharing of this information, but I never again want to go through the helpless feeling of not being prepared to provide medical information in a health crisis situation. I hope that you won't be placed in a similar situation and can learn from my experience to have a list of your loved one's medications and health issues in an easily accessible place for an unexpected emergency room visit. Being prepared will help you maintain your sanity during a time of crisis.