Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When a Caregiver Can't Give Care - Part 1

I should have remembered the tipping point into physical danger.

If a medical crisis with a loved one leads to 24 hours without sleep, I'm likely to suffer an injury to my exhausted body that never happens to an alert person. A stupid, absurd accident like falling down a stairway on a toy poodle, then sliding across the landing floor on the puppy puddle it was coming upstairs to warn me about as I was running downstairs for medication to lower my daughter's fever.

So if I've been up all night I refuse to drive in the morning, even to an Urgent Care Center or hospital. I also refuse to climb stairs, or to walk within six feet of anything that rocks, sways or is suspended from a ceiling. I will sleep in a waiting room chair in front of strangers even while a loved one is being taken for a cat scan or in critical condition.

In February, my husband attempted to make a bacon sandwich while I was interning at the  Oakland Press. He only claimed hunger that evening, but at bedtime he pointed to a square burn the size of the pancake griddle on the kitchen floor.

"Had a little accident," he mumbled. "Are you mad?"

"Are you hurt?"

"Of course not," he said, but when I asked how it happened, he said he suffered a dizzy spell, then fell against the griddle handle, which burned the floor.

My face turned hot, hands trembled. "How did you spill hot bacon grease without burning yourself?"

"I can't remember," he said.

I lifted his pajama pant legs before he could stop me, and saw blisters shaped like tears, dimes and quarters, some bigger than quarters, about twenty on the calves of both legs.

He said it didn't hurt. On Google, I read that the most severe burns damage nerves, cause blisters without pain, and require immediate medical attention.

We argued about whether he needed to go to the hospital, whether I would let him butter his blisters like his mother would have sixty years ago, whether his dizzy spell was symptom of another silent heart attack or another little stroke. When he began snoring despite my complaints, I moved to the living room, pacing and checking on him all night long and channel surfing through infomercials, World War II news reels, and shows intended for an audience of insomniac, maniac murderers that claim to be crime shows while actually showing methods to kill and tips on escape. I ran to check on him each time he choked or groaned.    
In the morning when our favorite Urgent Care Center opened, I was afraid to drive and he was even more afraid to let me try. The examining room had no chairs, and standing for more than a few minutes is hard for me, since that accident in 1979 with the dog on the stairway and the pin implanted in my knee to keep it from dislocating.

I told a nurse, who motioned for me to sit on the doctor's stool,  about a foot high with wheels. As I tried to lower my derriere, the wheels spun the seat out from under me and I sprawled across the floor, slamming my bad knee into the examining table.

The nurse escorted me to a chair in the waiting room and the doctor came out to assure me my husband only needed the blisters cleaned, salves applied, bandages changed, keep it dry. "But why didn't he feel pain?" I asked. "Why did he get dizzy?"

She shrugged. "He should see his doctor about that."

I knew he would not. "I don't want to go to the hospital, ever again," he said.

I thought my knee pain and mobility would get better, but each day it worsened, with my knee cap slipping to the left a little when I bought groceries or washed floors, despite the pin that worked for so many years.  

In April, x-rays showed that bone rubbing against bone caused splinters and debris, and the doctor sent me to a specialist warning it might be time for a knee replacement.

"You can't have surgery on your knee again," my husband said. "Who will take care of us?"

It's exhausting walking on a wobbly leg. By May I was napping and sitting even more than my husband, who suffers cardiac and vascular disease and my daughter, who suffers insomnia all night,  depression all day and confusion around the clock.  

Who would take care of them if I could not? We were about to find out.

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