I was at work on Wednesday, in our usual Wednesday afternoon production meeting. When the meeting let out I sat down at my desk and, because I had no real work to do, started to write a post for my blog. I then checked my phone. I saw that I had two missed calls and 3 texts. The calls had come from my brother which could only mean one thing; my Dad was in the hospital again. The texts were from two of my Dad’s roommates and one from my brother. I picked up my phone and went into the hallway to call him back. I listened while he told me that Dad had passed out in Home Depot, that his heart had stopped and that his ICD (or implantable cardioverter defibrillator or, if you want to get technical, the “shock box” that lives in his chest) had not recovered him from the spell. His roommate/friend/special lady person (not going to get into that now because it could not be more irrelevant), Erica, was with him and luckily Erica is a nurse. She performed CPR on him for 15 minutes while waiting for the paramedics to arrive. I don’t know how many of you have ever performed CPR or even watched someone perform CPR but it is a monumentally difficult task, physically and emotionally, to sustain for even 5 minutes straight so to Erica I say thank you, thank Sweet Muscly Jesus for you and your being there.
When the paramedics arrived they took him to UW Valley Medical Center in Renton. He had hit his head when he went down…and now it occurs to me that I should probably explain why my Dad passes out all the times and ends up in the hospital all the time. About 10 years ago my Dad started passing out, no one knew why. He eventually had a spell that landed him in the hospital where they discovered that he had a golf-ball sized tumor ON his heart. The weird part is they had no idea how long it had been there. Some of the doctors thought it was possible that it had been there all his life and was just now starting to cause problems. After many pokings and proddings and tests it was determined that this enormous mass on his heart was not cancerous, not malignant and not really doing anything anyone could find fault with so he was released and told to go live his life. Which is exactly what he did, occasionally passing out along the way, until May of 2011. It was May 26th at about 8:45 in the morning and Dad was driving the service truck for his work when he passed out at the wheel.
After being taken to the hospital by paramedics and being cleared for any major life-threatening injuries, doctors began to examine why this was happening. It was determined that my Dad had Atrial Fibrillation (AF) which is the most common form of arrhythmia, a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. During an arrhythmia, the heart can beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm. A-fib causes his heart to function at a significantly decreased efficiency than a normal, healthy heart. His A-fib is thought to be caused by or at least exacerbated by the mass on his heart and his A-fib has, ostensibly, caused him to develop congestive heart failure (his body, and chest in particular take on fluid at a rapid rate and because of his decreased heart function he is unable to move the fluid around and distribute it throughout his body causing enormous amounts of pressure to build up in his chest and on his lungs making it difficult for him to breathe) and the congestive heart failure causes him to pass out. After the accident in 2011 was when they installed the shock box in his chest. Since then he does not drive (legally anyhow) and was forced to quit working. His heart functions at about a level of 10% efficiency which, as you might imagine, is not too great.
When my Dad arrived at the hospital Wednesday afternoon he was going from bad to worse. He had to be intubated, he was unable to breathe on his own, his heart had stopped, completely, at least 6 times that the medical staff was able to determine from the cached data on his shock box, he had two heart attacks and had been defibrillated like 12 times. It was not looking good but his heart, we quickly learned, was to be least of our concerns.
After I spoke with my brother I decided to leave work. Something felt different about this time. I picked up Bo and headed down I-5. I was in downtown Seattle when I got another call from my brother, except when I answered it was his wife. She said “you’d better get down here” and proceeded to inform me that Dad was not breathing on his own and it was not looking good. I called Josh and asked him to meet me at the hospital; whatever was happening there I knew that I could not take Bo with me to see it. I got my visitor’s pass after handing Bo off to Josh and went into the ER. My sister-in-law was standing outside the room. She came up to me and delivered the broad strokes; he had hit his head, he had bleeding on his brain, they might have to do surgery, it would be tonight… I could barely stand up, everything around me went watery, nothing would hold still. I walked into the room, determined not to lose my shit, and promptly lost my shit. Dad was on a respirator, sedated, in a large room with every piece of intimidating medical equipment on the planet hooked up to him or shoved inside of him. It was not easy to see him underneath the confusing, twisted, labyrinth of medical technology.
Before I knew what was happening my brother and I were being swept out of the room by someone in neurosurgery who wanted to “speak with us about our options”, which sounded like a thinly veiled attempt at not being foreboding. It did not work. We were now in another room, a small room that had only one purpose; this is where they told you the bad news. An impossibly tall man with a gentle demeanor spoke to us about what we could expect from my father’s condition moving forward. It was all very vaguely worded and presented in hypotheticals. And then we were being lead back to the room of medical and technological marvels to be shown my father’s CT scan. The tall man pointed out the white, shadowy area that covered the better part of the left side of my Dad’s brain. The cardiologist joined us, admitting that the brain was not his area of expertise but his casual positivity seemed, if not encouraging, at least comforting.
I went out to the lobby and found Bo and Josh. I asked Josh to go grab me some cigarettes while I took Bo to the cafeteria to get something at least resembling dinner. I picked at a salad and Bo ignored everything in the way of food while he and another little boy at a nearby table struck up a lively conversation about the grossness of zombies. Josh called. We left the cafeteria and met him in the upper parking lot, presumably far enough away from the hospital proper where I could smoke without noticeably violating hospital rules. Just as I lit up my Mom and Aunt pulled up. We spoke briefly and I told them to go ahead and that I’d be in shortly. I got Bo’s things out of one car and put into the other, preparing him to go home with Josh. I got a call from my sister-in-law saying that the neurosurgeon was coming down and needed to talk to me and my brother.
I went back into the hospital after seeing off Josh and Bo. We went back into the tiny room where bad news is delivered. There were more of us in there now; me, my brother and sister-in-law, my mom and my aunt. The neurosurgeon was there with the tall man I now understood to be his surgical assistant. He had small, beady pig eyes like a dead shark or Tony Romo. He was wearing his surgery hat and had a faint air of dude-bro-ness about him. He started to explain that the bleeding on my father’s brain was quite severe. He said that surgery could relieve any pressure that might exist but it would also probably kill him; that with his heart and respiratory health he may not even survive anesthesia and that even if he survived surgery we would most like be a vegetable. Okay, so what happens if we don’t operate, doc? Well, if you don’t operate the swelling or pressure (if there is any) might go away on its own but your Dad will probably still be a vegetable. Don’t get me wrong, pig-eyes had a fine bedside manner and, frankly, getting him to give it to us straight did take a little cajoling.
The gist of what he was trying to say and only half succeeding was that brain injuries like the one my father had were typically traumatic and the likelihood that he would make anything close to a full recovery was not probable and, in his opinion not plausible. He basically said there was almost no chance that my father would be the same man he was before this ordeal. We were in a difficult spot. We had to decide between doing nothing and doing something but no matter what the results would not be good and would probably be the same. I, for one, could not see the point in having my Dad’s skull cut open to relieve pressure that might not exist in a procedure that would most probably kill him for the result of his definitely being on life support for the rest of forever…I mean, fiscally alone it did not make sense, let alone all those other really good reasons to not cut someone’s skull open. I was about to pass out and could not look at pig-eyes anymore so I left the room and went to my Dad. I sat by his bed and cried while holding his hand. I leaned into his ear and said, “Daddy? Can you hear me?” He opened his eyes and nodded. I said, “I love you.” and he mouthed around the respirator that he loved me too. I could simply not reconcile that he was a lost cause at that point, that he was as good as broccoli and we should all just save ourselves the trouble and pull the plug, which is pretty much what pig-eyes over in the other room was getting at.
Once the decision was made (with no help from me) to NOT operate my Dad was able to be moved upstairs to the ICU. His fate, at this point still seemed murky. It was difficult to determine how much communication he was capable of between the heavy sedation and the roadblock of intubation. For the next few hours we just went in and out of his room, getting him settled, trying to gauge the severity of his brain injury. Trying to shake off our Sophie’s Choice ordeal that was still haunting all of us. We was a little more awake now; Erica and her husband Andy (I told you, not now) had shown up and we all went into his room in shifts, two at a time. It was quickly determined that not only was Dad awake, he was aware of what was going on, he knew everyone who had come in to visit. In short, he was the same man as he had been that morning before the fall! We did not know what, if any, effects to his motor function had been suffered but we could breathe a little bit easier knowing that Dad was, from what we could tell, still Dad.
The other visitors trickled out of the ICU, leaving me, my brother and his wife. We decided food and whiskey were in order….okay they decided food was in order, I decided whiskey was in order. After whiskey and poutine and fried pickles and buffalo wings and tater tots or as I like to call it, grief’s smorgasbord, we went back to the hospital. I fell asleep for a little while on the fold-out chair. I woke up around 1 am and decided there wasn’t anything else I could do. I went home.
The next day he was off the respirator and breathing on his own. He was fully awake and aware, all in all, himself, that is to say he was ornery, cussing at the nursing staff and bitching about not being able to pee (he a tube up his pee-hole so he was able to pee just not in the earthy and satisfying way he wanted to).
The next few days were strange. We were still coming down off the high of knowing that Dad was not, as predicted, going to be a vegetable, but the road ahead of him was still roughly cobbled and dimly lit. On Friday evening he was moved out of the ICU which we all viewed as an immensely positive turn of events. His Mother and Sisters had come up California on Thursday (alerted and alarmed since we were told he was most likely going to be a shell of his former self); we spent the better part of Thursday assuring them that we did not jump the gun in calling them and that the night before we were told that his brain injury was most likely going to kill him because by the time their flight had landed on Thursday morning his brain injury had been all but forgotten.
Despite his ability to shake off an enormous blood clot on his brain as if it were nothing more than a hangnail he still had his heart to worry about. He struggled to breathe normally, exacerbated by the fact that the chest compressions from all the CPR he had endured on Wednesday had left his ribs deeply bruised making it nearly impossible for him to draw a deep breath or cough.
He was moved back into the ICU on Saturday night/early Sunday morning because of trouble breathing. I went down to the hospital on Sunday before I had to work. He had not been intubated, thankfully, but he was wearing an oxygen mask or bi-pap but he was able to talk while wearing it and able to take it off at times. My brother, his wife and I sat in Dad’s room for hours, joking and laughing, sometimes with Dad and sometimes at him; Ian (my brother) worked on RC car body he was preparing to paint, Kayrn (his wife) played a puzzle game on her phone and joked with me while I sketched in one of my many books. At one point Dad suggested that a unicorn I had drawn on the whiteboard hanging up in his hospital room should “shove its horn up the nurse’s ass”. It was a beautiful day outside and the room had huge, south-facing windows and was flooded with light. I helped my Dad drink soda and told him what his oxygen saturation levels were when he obsessively asked every 74 seconds. When I had to leave for work around 4 in the afternoon I hugged him and kissed his forehead and told him that I loved him and that I would see him the next day.
I started writing this on Sunday night and it was supposed to be a story about how my Dad beat the odds, refusing to succumb to the grim predictions of the neurosurgeon who said he was going to be a vacant invalid for his remaining days, if, in fact he had any days remaining at all.
My Dad passed away yesterday morning just before 6 am.