Tuesday 4 October 2016

The ER Caregiver Effect

There’s a tourist attraction in my city of Ottawa (Canada) called The Crazy Kitchen. It’s a room in the National Museum of Science of Technology that’s designed to demonstrate the effects of optical illusion on the mind and body. Entering the Crazy Kitchen is like walking through the doors of a house of mirrors at the funfair.

I feel like I’ve spent the last week off kilter. That’s because I’ve been in the hospital emergency room with my Mom. She had a respirator emergency and needed aggressive steroid and antibiotic treatment. Thankfully, she’s better now and back at home with support from paid helpers and from our family.

Beginning with a phone call in the middle of the night, a loved one’s health crisis is disorienting. Long hours in a windowless emergency room erase the distinction between day and night. Cries of pain or loneliness become ‘normal’.

What I did notice in Mom's ER was the difference that family members made in the comfort of patients who are suffering. As my Mom snoozed, I sat beside her watching a tiny, smiling Asian woman walk the hall, steadied by a rolling IV pole and her daughter’s arm. The diminutive woman stopped to smile and nod at each of her fellow patients as she passed. Then she would look at her daughter, take a deep breath and begin her hallway trek again. Once, I saw the daughter put her arm around her Mom and kiss her gently on the forehead.

I smiled watching the beautiful scene of mother-daughter devotion but was distracted by the sound of tapping on metal nearby. I rearranged the curtain around Mom’s bed and found the source of the tapping. It was an old woman in the bed opposite. Her manicure was recent and her nails were perfectly rounded and painted fire engine red, but palsy caused her hands to jump on the rail rhythmically. It was her beautiful nails that tapped out the beat of pain on the metal. Later, I heard her tell a nurse that she had no one in the world. No one.

Families make a difference. I know I did for my Mom. Hours before my arrival from another city, she’d been with my sister in the crash room, getting emergency assistance for acute respiratory distress.  My sister and I tag team in Mom's care. Now, Mom was still breathless with any physical effort, but mainly we were bored. We decided to play “tell me something funny that you did and that I don’t know”.  So Mom began, “I don’t think I ever told you about that time I was driving with all my friends and I got a speeding ticket. But that’s not the story. We were all laughing and joking – I was about 20, something like that. So this police officer pulls us over and boy, was he good looking! He was gorgeous! So he said, “What’s your name, Miss?” and I said, “Never mind my name, what’s YOUR name? And how about your number, too?”  We had a good laugh together about that story – my Mom is very funny and she’s a rebel with no filter!

I thought about illness, suffering, love and time spent waiting. I thought about the meaning of abiding, of remaining with someone and offering small comforts. I thought about how very big that really is.

I feel disoriented and off kilter because I've lost sleep and I've been so worried about my Mom. But I'm coming back to myself now that the crisis has passed. And I'm glad that we weathered this latest storm together as a family.

                                (This is some of our family with Mom a couple of years ago. Mom turned 94 on her last birthday, December 24, 2015.)

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