by Kim Keller
I recently received one of those late night phone calls that you just know is full of bad news on the other end.
It was my sister, Karen. Our mom had been out with her girlfriends that evening, and she fell in the restaurant as they were leaving. Her friends rushed her to the emergency room where Mom was told she had fractured her hip and now required surgery.
Never the news you want to hear, especially right before the holidays. And, no matter how many times Karen and I have needed to help one of our parents through a health ordeal, and despite the years we’ve spent on In Care of Dad, detailing helpful caregiving protocols, we still feel the initial panic that overwhelms every son and daughter when their parents are suddenly injured or become seriously ill.
Luckily for us, our training kicked in fairly quickly, and we were able to apply the same basic principles we’ve been preaching these last four years. And that gives us considerable satisfaction on two levels: firstly, because we know our mom is now in good hands and on her way to recovery, and, secondly, because it tells us once again that the procedures and tips and guidelines we’ve been recommending here are indeed helpful and instructive.
But there’s always something new to learn and to share, and this time was no different. Here are some of the highlights:
- Have a support team in place — Karen and I used to think that we had to do everything ourselves, but that’s neither practical nor wise, especially since we live so far away. After our mom’s stroke in 2009, we created a support team around her, which brings her, and us, tremendous comfort and confidence that pretty much any situation can be handled. Creating a support team is not that hard — it requires only a modicum of time and effort.
- Produce a contact list of friends and neighbors to call on;
- Reach out to local churches or senior centers for volunteer support; and
- Research local agencies for additional paid support, such as a nurse, an aide or an in-home helper. When a difficult situation arises, it’s a tremendous relief to have experienced people you can call.
- Talk through concerns with your doctor — Mom had lots of legitimate fears about the long-term effect that anesthesia might have on her brain. Mom is over 65 and she’s had a stroke, both of which are good reasons to be concerned about anesthesia. Bringing these concerns to the doctor made him think about how he could minimize Mom’s risk.
- Bring your medications — When Mom was admitted to the hospital and, then again, when she was transferred to a rehab center, we brought her basket of medications for the nurses to review during the intake process. This was particularly useful at the rehab center. Mom has medications that she needs to have on a timely schedule, and the rehab (like most rehabs) needed to order the medications, which would have taken a day or so to obtain. The rehab was able to use Mom’s own supply of medications for those critical pills that could not wait. By the way, they’re always happy to have the pills at the beginning of the process, but they are also eager to have you take the pills home immediately thereafter. There’s always a danger of overmedication if the patient and the nursing staff are both in possession of meds.
- Stay ahead of the pain — There’s lots of pain that goes along with hip surgery. The rehab center, understandably, requires Mom to ask for pain medication, instead of having her on a schedule. The problem is, that that is not so easy for someone who’s had a stroke and is recovering from anesthesia to do. So we decided to set Mom’s phone alarm to remind her that she can ask for that medication before the pain starts to rage out of control.
- Watch those medications after surgery — Your daily medication routine gets turned upside down when you’ve had surgery. Medication is temporarily stopped and often a new medication is temporarily undertaken. This is the time to be most vigilant and ask questions about each one. Why is this medication being given? For how long? Does it work with my other meds? Will I be put back on my previous medication? Before surgery, Mom was taken off her blood thinner. The next afternoon the doctor told me that he was putting her back on it that night. When the nurse came in with Mom’s pills a couple hours later, I asked about the blood thinner. It wasn’t there. The nurse said that the doctor didn’t order it. I explained what the doctor had just told me that evening and suggested she follow up with the doctor? She did and, for whatever reason, the order hadn’t been given. Be vigilant!
- Interview the rehabs — Take the time to visit rehabs. Although the hospital staff is not supposed to recommend a rehab, you can learn a lot by asking questions. I narrowed the search and then went to visit these different facilities. You can tell a lot by walking around, observing patients and their interactions with staff members, talking with the therapists and watching them work.
- Don’t get ahead of yourself — I confess, I have a smile on my face as I write this! I’m a planner. I anticipate needs and solutions, which is a good thing. The problem is, I also bring worry and anxiety along with the planning. It’s just my nature. Karen and I try to keep each other in check. There is no doubt that you will be more successful by focusing specifically on those variables you can actually control and putting the other things aside, but I acknowledge that this is often easier said than done. However, I also know that getting ahead of yourself will only sap your much-needed energy and spirit. Take a deep breath and remember: one thing at a time!
I’m happy to report that Mom’s surgery was a success, and she’s been busy working hard in rehab, where she’ll be for the next several weeks. Which brings me to my most important lesson of all: spend less time wallowing in worry and more time contemplating all that there is to be grateful for.
Kim Keller is the Co-Founder of In Care of Dad. She lives and works in New York City.