Unless you work a job with very strange hours, a ringing phone at 5:45 a.m. rarely signals anything good. Our cell signal at home was perfectly awful, so I should have been keeping our regular landline phone in the bedroom, but I wasn’t. Both of the portable handsets were somewhere downstairs.
Normally I woke up no later than 6:00, so I was in that foggy, not-quite-sleep-but-definitely-not-awake state; radio-alarm tuned to the local NPR station with the news stories playing into the plot lines of my nonsensical dreams. In a deep recess of my brain I heard a far away sound that jogged something in my subconscious, but it was so faint (and the bedroom door was closed) that by the time I was awake enough to register it as “maybe the phone ringing,” it had stopped. Was I dreaming that? I was alert now, though, so when, about 10 seconds later, it started again, I was out of bed, down the hall and down the stairs in a few seconds of sheer panic. (Even as I type this, that same sensation of heart-pounding dread is welling up in me).
I hardly had to look at the caller ID screen to know who it was. I picked up the phone, mustering as much composure as I could, but without saying hello; instead it was, “what happened?”
Mom, sounding extremely upset: “Marcia (also *never* good when that’s the first word out of her mouth). It’s dad. He fell in the bathroom and I can’t get him up. I don’t know how long he’s been there.”
Me: “Is he awake?”
Me: “OK. We’ll be right down. Don’t try to move him.” I hung up and in the same instant yelled for my husband, “Tim!! Tim!!! We have to go to my mom’s. My dad fell in the bathroom and I can’t lift him myself.”
Trooper that he is, he was down the stairs in less than 30 seconds, and we were out the door in our pajamas, slippers, and winter coats. We bolted into the condo 3 minutes later and found dad on his right side, stuck between the toilet and the wall in their master bathroom, unable to muster enough upper body strength to right himself. I ran through the litany of questions/commands: “Did you hit your head? Does anything hurt? Let me see your eyes.” We carefully slid him out, away from the wall and the toilet, and gently sat him up. I ran my hands along his right shoulder, arm, side, and hip checking to see if he winced for evidence he’d broken anything but was being too stoic to admit it. Assured that he hadn’t done any major physical damage, with me holding his feet steady so they didn’t slide, Tim got behind him and lifted him to standing. We got on either side of him and helped him over to the arm chair that sat next to the bed.
While I asked him more questions about what had happened, Tim went to join my mother in the kitchen. I could hear them talking – not well enough to know what was being said, but enough to hear the emotion in my mother’s voice. Tim came back in and stayed with him in the bedroom, while I went to the kitchen to get him some water (I suspected that he, like many older people, was pretty chronically dehydrated, which couldn’t be helping him). I had been fine and solid during the previous 5 or 10 minutes getting dad out of his predicament and back to vertical, but now that the immediate adrenaline had worn off, I was shaking.
When I got to the kitchen, I gave my mother a long, teary hug. She was distraught over not having heard him, unsure of how long he’d been there. I reminded her that starting today, things were going to get easier with Hannah (their new caretaker) coming. I filled the water glass and brought it to dad and told him to drink it, knowing that if I asked him if he was thirsty, his answer would be no, but that if I told him to drink it, he would.
When we were sure dad was OK and everything had simmered down, I reminded them I’d be back later when Hannah arrived, and Tim and I went back home. I forced myself back into my normal morning routine for a few more hours until I would go back to welcome Hannah. We’d also been talking for a bit about getting dad a lift/recliner chair, and a better walker than the crappy standard-issue aluminum one he’d been using. I resolved that once Hannah was settled in that morning, I was going straight to the home medical supply place.
We’d been looking forward to this day for what felt like years already, so I was happy to see Hannah slide comfortably into a routine with them which, even after 15 minutes, seemed as if it had been in place for months. Feeling optimistic, I headed to the home medical supply shop on a mission. I found a great chair that seemed to be a good size for dad – it even had a little side-table accessory. I tested it out (comfy!!). I took pictures and grabbed the brochure. I bought several different sizes of quilted, waterproof pads that we could put down on chairs and in bed in case of accidents. I got them a portable, suction-attached grab handle for the shower, and a super-duper new walker with rubber tires (the larger ones were fully articulating, to help with maneuvering in tight spaces), hand brakes, and a built-in, fold-down seat with concealed storage underneath.
I piled it all into my car, drove it back, and pulled into their driveway feeling like one of Santa’s elves on a post-holiday follow up assignment. Mom was truly grateful and approved of the chair. Dad also seemed to like the chair, so I installed the grab handle in the shower, then returned to the store, bought the chair, and scheduled delivery for Friday. I stopped at the condo on my way home to update them.
Sometime around 5:30 or so, the phone rang again. I saw that it was my parents’ number, so picked up, expecting a happy recap of “Hannah, Day One.” It was my mom, but this was not her “happy recap” voice. She began again with “Marcia.” My heart lurched. She was barely able to articulate a full sentence, but the gist was that something was wrong with dad – he was shaking. He wasn’t eating, and he wasn’t answering her. I told her I’d be right there.
Tim came with me again. When we got there, dad was in the chair next to his bed, and “tremoring” is the best way to describe what his body was doing. I was thinking I needed to run through the checklist for a stroke, so Tim Googled it and prompted me through. I asked him to smile. (Even on both sides). I asked him if he could raise his arms. (He nodded, but then didn’t do it). I asked him if he could repeat a sentence after me. (He nodded again, but again, didn’t do it). I told mom I was calling 911, and did. They had me run through the same exercises while they dispatched an ambulance. They arrived quickly, and Tim helped guide them in. They ran through all their checks and vitals-taking. Their opinion was that it was probably a fairly severe urinary tract infection (they’d seen them countless times). I remember his blood pressure was quite low but not much else (fever? pulse rate? blood oxygen? I’m sure they gathered all of that but I don’t recall any of the readings). I decided I needed to ride in the ambulance to the hospital with him and told Tim he could drive my mom there in my car.
The beauty of having an ambulance as your transport to the Emergency Room is that when you get there, they’re ready for you. No waiting around in the waiting room to be seen, worrying that whatever you have might kill you before you get in. We’d had the presence of mind back at the condo to grab all his important info – Medicare and other insurance cards, photo ID, etc, so I had everything ready when the admitting person wheeled her cart and laptop over to me as I sat on a bench near my dad on his guerney in the hallway. We were in a private room in the Emergency Department soon thereafter with all manner of support staff and doctors coming in and out, asking questions, checking vitals, hooking him up to IVs and an oxygen feed. I think we were moved later to a different room in the ED, because Tim had come back to the first room, then went back out, and I remember directing him via text to a different room to come back again at some point that night. The staff brought us snacks, water, ginger ale. Tim was too fidgety to stick around, which was OK, so I told him he could go home. Thankfully I had my e-reader app on my phone and occupied myself with my latest book club book.
Around 1 a.m., a tall, gray-haired, very serious-looking doctor came in and introduced himself as the head of the hospital’s infectious disease unit. He explained that my dad was in sepsis, also suffering from pneumonia and a UTI. He told us they were working on figuring out what bacteria was doing this; they had him on 2 different antibiotic drips and would continue to do everything they could, but he needed us to know that this was serious, and there was a chance my dad may not make it.
At that moment, I wasn’t dwelling on a planet where acceptance of that was possible, but worry and fear were suddenly etched on my mother’s face and tears welled in her eyes. The doctor, seeing her reaction, acknowledged it, spending another few minutes to explain the protocol they’d follow, which, thankfully, took a little of the edge off her panic. We spent the rest of the night twisting ourselves into momentarily restful positions in molded urethane visitor chairs against the wall in his room, separated by the rolling tray table we couldn’t be sure he’d use for its intended purpose, but which was serving as our headrest for the night.