Ever since 2000, the year my father had his quintuple bypass surgery, followed by his stroke two years later, and the death of my mother in 2005, my life’s journey has involved visits to quite a few hospital beds.
That’s not even factoring in the eight years my late wife dealt with ovarian cancer. She endured multiple chemotherapy treatments, surgeries and side effects that drove us to the hospital, it seemed, on every possible major holiday. We visited the hospital on Easter, the day after Christmas, Memorial Day, Labor Day and all points in between.
It was tough for this formerly hyper distance runner with boundless energy to learn to sit still in the hospital and wait. Because that’s what caregivers do. You stand by your patient and you wait. For doctors. For nurses. For news on surgery, or chemo, or test results.
You sit, and you wait. Patiently.
It’s an endurance test of a different type from going out and running 15 or 20 miles, cycling a century or swimming until your arms ache. Caregiving is the ultimate test of character.
My father is lying upstairs in a hospital bed right now. A month ago he fell while trying to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. He’s 89 years old and weakened on one side from the effects of his stroke. He’s not supposed to do things on his own, but he’s a determined fellow and not always willing to listen to instructions.
So he fell on his shoulder and broke his arm. But that was just the first incident.
We treated the arm and the doctors decided it was best to let it heal naturally. My dad of course still has heart issues and putting a person with issues like that through anesthesia is not always the best idea.
So he went home and hung out for another couple weeks. And then he decided again at 2:00 in the morning it would be a good idea to get up and go to the bathroom on his own. His live-in caregiver does a wonderful job with my dad normally. But again, my dad is a determined fellow.
This time he fell and broke his hip. That’s never a good thing for elderly patients.
There was no avoiding surgery if my father wanted to live beyond a few months. He is lucid and understood that. So he had the surgery.
But it’s no easy road. There are no guarantees he’ll recover well from all this. My family understands this. My dad has gotten through tons of stuff over the years. Frankly there were people who never thought he’d survive beyond the first year after his massive stroke in 2002. He was weak and frail and hardly recognized us. But he’s a tough man and even after my mother passed away ten years ago in November, my father grieved her and kept on living.
He’s been bombing around visiting garage sales and buying all sorts of weird crap ever since. There are ten full sets of golf clubs in his garage. He still uses his one good hand to repair and restore clubs. He can also draw quite well using his left hand. That has been useful in his communication because he lost the ability to speak after his stroke. For thirteen years my father has not been able to say much more than the word “Poo,” if he doesn’t like something, and “Yeah…” if he does.
It’s been up to me to lead the conversation all these years. I’ve learned to ask questions that get to the core of what he wants. For a long time it was difficult and he’d get so angry he almost got physical. But over time we’ve both learned patience. Sort of.
He still gets that stern look on his face when he’s displeased. As his caregiver says, “Stew the Boss.” Well, that pretty much means he demands things be done his way, and right away.
That’s not always possible, as you can imagine. He was in pain earlier this week and it took a few minutes for the nurses to arrive. Dad fussed and scowled. I’ve always wished he could be more grateful for the care he receives. Perhaps it’s not in his nature. Everyone has their own character with which they sail through life. Sometimes people feel like a pirate flag is better than any other form of signal.
In between caregiving visits I’ve squeezed in a few runs and rides this week. And yesterday I went to the pool and saw genuine improvement in my ability to swim longer intervals. That was encouraging.
It all helps make it possible to tolerate the view from the hospital where my father struggles to breathe and life is confined to a bed full of floating sand. Seriously, that’s how hospitals deal with patients who might otherwise suffer bedsores.
It’s all part of the deal. Life is always a balance of freedoms and obligations. That’s how we all have to roll at times. The view from the hospital is no different than any other.