“Hey, Sis? You busy today?”
“Not really, Dad. Just the usual chores and whatnot.” It was Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and all that really meant was I had an extra day to revise my research project entirely, after many months of work in the wrong direction.
“I think there is something wrong with that new medicine I’ve been taking. I called the nurse line, but it routed me through to Ohio. She just said I should go to the emergency room.”
“I’ll be right there.”
Five minutes later Greg and I were on I-5 heading to pick up Dad. We arrived at his apartment 40 minutes north of town and walked right in as we knocked.
“Come in. Sit down a minute,” Dad greeted us casually.
“I thought you needed to go to the emergency room? Where are your shoes?”
“Yea, but I don’t think we’re in any hurry. We’ve got time.”
“Why don’t we get going,” I urged. Dad had recently begun taking medication to regulate an irregular heart rhythm. Now he just wanted to talk about it. Dad’s ultra-calm edging to jovial is usually a sign that things are going terribly wrong.
Greg persuaded Dad out to the car without hesitation.
Half an hour later we arrived at the Portland VA Medical Center. It was my first visit to the facility. I jumped out of the car to fetch Dad a wheel chair, but he would have no part in it.
“I don’t need that.” Dad was not looking very steady on his feet, but he was vertical and walking, so I did not argue. If he collapsed between the door and the desk he would certainly be admitted quickly. When you walk into most hospital emergency rooms saying things are mostly fine no one questions you, and you just sit for hours until you get bored and decide to leave and take care of your ailment on your own, assuming you don’t die waiting.
Dad staggered up to the reception desk and recited his VA number like a soldier standing at attention.
“What brings you here today, Mr. Lund?”
“I’m taking some new medications and I think they are having some kind of interaction.”
The receptionist lowered his eyes to the computer monitor in front of him. “Why don’t you step next door and see the triage nurse,” he said like he had said it a thousand times already that day.
With Dad’s arm in a cuff the triage nurse tried to record his vital signs. His pulse yo-yoed between 98 and 193 beats per minute, stopping at any random place in between for but a brief second. Dad could not see the monitor. If you didn’t see the equipment you would have thought he was on a social call. After a few moments looking back and forth between Dad and the monitors the nurse finally decided on 177 beats per minute. I was inclined to agree, but it wasn’t my place to offer an opinion.
“Why don’t you step over there,” the nurse requested, gesturing toward the actual emergency room where the action takes place. We walked out into the hall toward a large, open room. In the VA emergency patients do not get their own rooms. There is emergency equipment mounted to a wall with a curtain hung from the ceiling on a track big enough to enclose one twin-sized bed plus one small person standing all the way around it. It is humble but it does the job.
Instantly, Dad was swept onto a bed with the help of what seemed like a dozen staff. He had tubes in his nose and oxygen flowing almost before he was laying down. Someone wheeled him toward one of the hubs on the wall. By the time his bed was backed up in reach of the equipment he had an IV port in the back of his hand, ready to receive drugs that would save his life. The hospital staff seemed to multiply.
All the while Dad kept up his grinning, throwing smart-ass comments at every opportunity. I only wish I could have such a wit in my best of moments. Somehow in times like these Dad’s wit goes into overdrive. That is how I know not to worry, that everything will be okay.
Dad’s heart rate and blood pressure yo-yoed ever more erratically, trending ever higher toward the heavens. His lungs filled with fluid at an accelerating pace. The one-liners kept coming. Finally someone thought to close the curtain around us as they plugged in more sophisticated heart monitoring equipment. The medicine dose in the IV kept notching upward as well, to no avail.
Suddenly a look of panic flashed across Dad’s face as it started turning ashen blue. He lurched forward grasping at his throat where it meets his chest, almost as if he could open it up with his own hands and make more room for air that his own body fluids were crowding out. He was drowning. The medicines that could stabilize and slow his heart, and drain the fluids off his lungs were not working. Dad’s mother, brother, and sister all died of heart failure.
It is as if I was watching from a distance. I could see it all, so close and in the midst of it, but I was not really there. I’ve heard that when some people are on the brink of death they separate from their body and they watch their life being saved from the corner of the ceiling. There I was waiting for Dad at the corner of the ceiling, only he wasn’t about to leave that bed.
“Dad I’m right here. It’s going to be okay,” I said as much to bring myself back into the moment as to reassure Dad. I assume Dad couldn’t hear anything. The room created by the curtain felt so tiny. Dad continued to writhe, grasping at his chest struggling for one tiny breath as the medical team continued to increase the dosage of his medicine.
Then just as suddenly as it came on, like a fever it broke. Dad’s blood pressure and heart rate quit inching toward death. There was room for air in his lungs again. Eventually Dad’s heart rate began to creep downward, one millimeter at a time. I have no idea how long the worst of it lasted. It could have been a minute. It could have been ten minutes or half an hour. It seemed as if through the worst of it there were three dozen medical staff working to stop the heart failure and drain his lungs manually, but I know that is not possible.
When Dad’s heart rate stabilized around the low hundreds per minute and showed signs of continually inching downward someone on the team told him they needed to take him out for a chest x-ray.
“Oooh-wee! I’m going to be in pictures!” Dad jested. By then he was wearing not much more than a sheet and a whole lot of plugs, wires, tubes, and equipment.
The medical team seemed to take their time prepping for the x-ray. Eventually they received the clearance to move Dad to the x-ray room. They disconnected the equipment that could not be moved, and set up the portable equipment for that which could.
“As long as I’m going on parade we’re going to have fun with this,” Dad whispered to me as if we were out shopping on a sunny afternoon.
Finally the medical team pulled his bed out to wheel him away. He sat up as best he could with the tubes and wires hanging from his nose, chest, and legs, grinning like a newly coronated princess. The parade started down the hall with the equipment dragging behind the bed. Dad turned toward the emergency room and began to wave.
Elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist, wrist. Elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist, wrist. It was the best Memorial Day parade I have ever seen.