One morning three years ago, my 76-year-old mother fell from the top of a 10-foot-ladder in her backyard onto the brick patio beneath.
She lives alone, a two-hour drive away from me. I was in a meeting at work and missed her initial phone call, but called her back when I saw she and her next-door neighbor had called. She was in the emergency room with that neighbor but sounded mostly normal.
Emotions Locked? Check.
My mother was admitted into neurological ICU in the hospital where I was born. I don’t remember any of the technical details, but she had suffered serious head trauma and the medical personnel were monitoring her in case they needed to perform surgery.
My husband couldn’t get off work. I dashed home, packed a quick bag and hurried northward by myself, calling my brother on the way. He lives about twelve hours distant by car, but said he would make a reservation and fly up as soon as possible.
By the time I reached her house, I had wrestled my emotions into a little lockbox in my head. They nearly sprang out again like a jack-in-the-box when I peeked out the curtains of the sliding glass door and saw the bloodstain on the bricks.
The Horror of Head Trauma
My experience with intensive care units was limited. When my husband had quadruple bypass surgery, I was only allowed in for a few minutes at a time. Nobody was guarding the door the first time I went in to find Mom, and a nurse at the desk pointed me to her room.
Mom was hooked up to all manner of tubes and wires. She spoke to me a little, but what she did say was either incoherent or nonsensical. She was obsessed with her purse, for some reason. I took it to her house with me that evening, but she kept asking for it. The creepiest part was she would make a walking gesture with her fingers toward the side of the bed where the purse had been, without speaking, and I’d have to remind her where the purse was.
In the first few days, the medical personnel let me stay by her bed as long as I wanted to. I wonder, in retrospect, if she was in danger of dying and they wanted to let me be with her as much as possible. A nurse told my brother later she nearly died.
My Brother, The Rock Star
My mother was moved into a room in the neurological unit after a week. My brother had arrived by this time, so we were relieved to have room to sit and receive visitors. She fell a couple of times while in this room. I lost track of how many CT scans she had.
Caring for my mom was a bonding experience for my brother and me. We were always close, but hadn’t spent time together, just the two of us, in years. Horrible experiences can have elements of good as well, and this was one of them.
The Long Journey to Cognitive Recovery
After about ten days, she was moved from the neurological unit to inpatient physical therapy. She had another couple of months of outpatient physical therapy.
Fortunately, she recovered well, but remembers nothing of me sitting beside her in neurological ICU. Her memory is subject to lapses typical of a victim of head trauma. In conversation, she sometimes has trouble conjuring up a particular word, in a way she tells me is different from the “it’s on the tip of my tongue” forgetfulness. One of the main reasons for her cognitive recovery she has made is daily sessions with Lumosity, an online brain game system, begun during inpatient physical therapy.
9 Ways to Think of the Unthinkable
Here are 9 things I learned through this experience that may help someone else dealing with an accident or serious illness of a loved one living some distance away. Note that I used the feminine pronoun, but this use reflects my personal experiences.
1. Be sure you can get into her house. I was glad I already had a key and knew the code to her alarm system.
2. Obtain her medical and prescription drug information. Mom had a list of surgeries and prescription and nonprescription drugs in a file on her computer, so I could print it out whenever I needed to give one to a doctor. I keep a copy in my Dropbox in case I need it again.
3. Know the phone number of a neighbor. Mom’s next door neighbor is a treasure. We texted and called as necessary when I was back at home for a few days.
4. Have phone numbers of siblings, relations and other important contacts. I had my brother’s number in my phone, but not my uncle’s number. I retrieved several important numbers from Mom’s phone when I needed to update relatives on her condition.
5. Be prepared for several days’ stay at least. I packed enough for three days and had access to her washer and dryer.
6. Set up a shared Google calendar for anyone who needs to know dates of important appointments. I entered her physical therapy dates and times and shared it with her, so she wouldn’t have to remember it all.
7. Know contact number for church members. A designated group of members at Mom’s church were so helpful in organizing and delivering meals to her. One woman spearheaded getting drivers to take her to and from physical therapy before Mom was allowed to drive. Their assistance was such a relief for me, and the answer to many prayers.
8. Have cash for parking decks. This item sounds a little silly, but when you’re anxious it’s easy to overlook. The hospital parking deck provided tokens for a dollar each, but I never carry cash. I used a credit card to get $20 worth, most of which I still have in my car three years later.
9. Take a planner or notebook with you everywhere. At one point I took my mother to the beauty shop (or hair salon, as most people call it). While she was having her hair washed and set, I researched and phoned a service to do some light housework for her. The planner was handy for noting the appointment, contact name and number and costs for the service. Some people might prefer to keep it all on their phone, but this case is one in which analog works best for me.
Dealing with an illness or accident of a loved one is a project all its own. My mental health was improved greatly by focusing on a plan for her care, often (but not always) keeping me from bouts of anxiety. Prepare in advance. You never know when a crisis will strike.