Getting the Call

On Sunday afternoon I got the call. My mother was in the hospital in Cottonwood, Arizona. She had suffered a stroke. The problem was, there were no hospital rooms available. There were no rooms in Flagstaff, and there were no rooms in Phoenix. I told my father to ask for a physician referral to Yavapai Regional in Prescott, where I live. As luck would have it, my personal physician admitted her. In one way I was surprised because of the coincidence. I had thought to myself that she would be my choice to care for my mother. In another way it was the flow of the Tao. But everything has its shadow.

The first thing I noticed as my wife drove me to the Cottonwood hospital, where mother was in emergency, was the fullness of my heart. It was as if hidden reservoirs of emotion had been stored inside my chest, and they were overflowing from the container of time, just as my mother's personal life was beginning to expand out of her control.

There are much worse strokes, I know, but I had just visited with mother on Thursday, feeling intuitively it was time to talk with her and my father about their wishes should one or both of them become unable to advocate for themselves. Would they wish to have somebody care for them at home? Would they prefer a partial care facility? Did they have a living will on file? I had noticed over the past few months the increasingly fragility of mother's body. She was becoming as delicate as a bird. And as I was opening the gate to leave, she was coming down the drive to stop me. "You forgot to hug me," she said.

I understood. Each time could be the last time.

As the ambulance transferred her to Prescott hospital, and I learned that my doctor was the one who admitted her, I felt I had been granted a wish. There are some people I know are especially good people, and she is one of them. I drove dad to his house and helped him gather some things for mother, a robe, a pair of slippers, a gown ... her brush and comb ...

As I drove him to Prescott he talked, as is his habit, in stories, recollections of the past.

I could not participate well. I was thinking of mother. I know it diverts the attention and staunches the flow of the emotion to focus on other things, but I choose not to do that. I don't feel ashamed of the contortion of my face as it is borrowed by my heart and used to express sorrow. There is something transformational in sorrow.

I felt heartened this morning that she was more awake, more alive, and her voice more clear and understandable. My sorrow was sorrow for the first serious crack in the fragility of old age, and for the memories slipping through it from life's container. I was feeling her in my heart, and it was overflowing with the reality of her love for me.

While the physical therapist was examining her, dad and I went to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee.

The shadow had been making a lot of noise out in the hallway. She was a large, masculine woman with the manner of an insensitive and vulgar man. Her voice overrode the peace of the ward like a knife cutting bone. She was dressed in loud clothing and moved with a heavy, graceless presence. I felt a natural aversion to her, a wariness of her insensitivity. When we got back to the room she had injected mother with something which, she said, was in response to her nausea. At the same time the technicians arrived to take mother for the tests scheduled for the morning.

"Oops," the shadow said. "She was gagging and I doped her. She's not going nowhere."

I looked at my dad and saw a familiar expression come over his face. He was angry, and so was I. "There's something wrong with her," he said. "We better turn mother on her side so she don't choke if she gets sick again."

Mother had been drugged so heavily her speech was no longer understandable and she was unable to eat anything. I didn't want that woman treating her, but she was the nurse assigned to her. I wanted to talk to my doctor but she wasn't there yet. I decided I would tell her that we could only judge this nurse by her self-presentation, which was graceless, at best, and in my estimation, vulgar.

She came into the room with another syringe to inject something else into mother. I had to make a decision. I thought maybe she was using one injection to knock her out and another to wake her up, and I wanted to know what was going on before she did anything more. "Please don't inject her right now," I said. The woman ignored me and started to give the injection. I touched her on the shoulder to get her attention. "I'm sorry," I said, "but I prefer that you not treat my mother right now."

"This is just a blood thinner," she said.

"Nonetheless, I prefer that you not treat my mother. I would rather she have another nurse."

This created such a defensive reaction that she stormed from the room loudly proclaiming that she didn't have to put up with anybody putting his hands on her, and that she was going to get her supervisor. What I didn't realize was that she was also going to try to have me arrested for assaulting her.

The supervisor was very nice, and spoke and behaved in a civilized and caring way. She inspired trust in the same way that the other woman inspired fear and apprehension. I thought the incident was over, and felt bad that I hadn't handled it better, but the main thing was that I had taken care of the problem before my dad took care of it. He's 87-years-old, but when he gets angry, he makes me look like a French diplomat. This woman had already made him sufficiently angry with her crude mouth that he asked me to not leave mother alone while she was on shift. He had to drive back to Cottonwood for a doctor's appointment, and to feed his dog.

Security came and asked me to come into a private room. They were deciding whether to involve the police. I was being accused of violating a law which protects heath care workers from assault, and she was describing my touching her shoulder as aggression toward her. I explained what happened to the head of hospital security, who decided I was telling the truth. He called in the nursing supervisors and asked me to tell them what I told him.

What was astounding to me was that people who work around this woman, or even within earshot of her, which means the same floor if there's good insulation between it and other floors, didn't already realize how crude she is. At any rate, the head of security decided I wasn't going to be arrested. I went back in and mother was still knocked out from the drug that she'd been given. It seemed to me at least an error in judgment, as when you burn your house to roast a pig.

When my doctor came in she assured me I had not just the right but the responsibility to be the advocate for my mother, and she changed the medication chart so that nobody else would treat nausea with a sledge hammer. I was already exhausted from the emotions that came in when I realized my mother was that ill. Having to deal with the hospital shadow left me feeling sick as well as exhausted. At the change of shift I came home, and wrote about what it has been like since getting the call.

Posted: Mon - May 23, 2005 at 07:22 PM