“Hey, Mom’s fallen out of a tree and can’t move.”
It wasn’t exactly the kind of text I was expecting to receive at 7:30 on a Thursday night…or any other night, for that matter.
“Are you kidding? What do you mean she can’t move?” was my bewildered response. Holy moly, what now?
This wasn’t how my Thursday night was supposed to go down. I had worked tirelessly all afternoon to ensure my children would have an early bedtime because I was tired. Not everyday mom tired (which we all know is borderline exhausted) but mom-on-the-verge-of-completely-losing-her-marbles tired (which is a very special category of exhausted). My husband had been out of town for two weeks, and I was preparing to leave for an extended trip in a matter of days. I barely had time to cover the bare essentials of life—dishes, diapers, and deodorant—much less deal with a paralyzed mom.
Spoiler alert: Thankfully, my mom wasn’t paralyzed, but she had indeed fallen out of a tree and was being transported to the hospital via ambulance. With my husband out of town, I scrambled to think of who could come over to stay with my sleeping kids so that I could make the necessary and terrifying trip to the ER to be with my mom. Luckily my brother was able to come to my rescue before I had to resort to
harassing calling my neighborhood friends, so I was off to the hospital less than an hour after receiving the news that Mom had fallen. Once granted access through the locked entrance to the ER patient rooms, I didn’t even have to look at the room numbers to find my mom…I easily located her by following the unmistakable sound of her guttural wailing.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard one of your parents crying in agony, but it’s just as heart-wrenching as you’re probably imagining it would be. Hearing their pain, you feel helpless and small in a way that, as a parent, you are probably not accustomed to feeling. In fact, I really wasn’t prepared for anything about my mom’s hospital visit or subsequent recovery. I guess more than anything this is because I had never consciously opted out of the childhood fantasy that my parents are invincible and immortal.
And so last month I was swiftly introduced into the very real and very harsh realities of the sandwich generation. If you’re unfamiliar with the term—as I was until about a month ago—“sandwich generation” refers to a generation of people, typically in their thirties or forties, responsible for bringing up their own children and caring for their aging parents. Luckily my introduction will be fleeting, as my mom is expected to heal and return to life as normal, but I know many of my peers aren’t as fortunate as they care for parents whose prognoses are far more serious. I have always admired and respected those in such a situation, but my admiration and reverence takes on a deeper and more personal note after getting a tiny sampling of their everyday reality.
I wanted to share some of the lessons that my mom’s accident taught me, both about being prepared for a hospital visit and for the care that will ensue after you are discharged. I don’t have any big or novel revelations, and I’m sure I’ve left a lot of good information out. In fact, I don’t really expect you to pay much attention to any of it, as this is not typically the sort of stuff you care about until it’s happening to you. But maybe you can read it and file it away in the back of your mind for reference when you need it. If nothing else, I’d encourage you to take action on the first item. Being proactive in identifying your go-to support system will help you focus quickly on the task at hand when duty calls.
Identify your personal first responders.
You never know when you’ll get your “Mom fell out of a tree” call. Maybe it will be in the middle of the day and your kids will be at school. Maybe it’ll be at 3:00 in the morning and they’ll be in bed. Wherever they’ll be, have someone in mind who is willing to take over for you when you need to leave at a moment’s notice. Whether it’s a relative, friend, neighbor, or coworker, I recommend identifying someone you trust and asking him/her proactively if you can call them in an emergency situation when you (and/or your husband) may need to leave your kids with someone…even if it’s in the middle of the night. Better yet, find a couple of people with whom you can have this arrangement in case your first call isn’t available.
your their stuff.
It’s very helpful in an emergency situation to know or have access to important information about your parents. Here are some of my suggestions:
- Health insurance information, including where they keep their card(s)
- Birthdate (including year, which for some reason I never bothered to memorize—whoops)
- Social Security Number
- Medical history
- Cell phone lock code
- Neighbors’ names and phone numbers
- Coworkers’ names and numbers
- And you hate to think about this, but in the spirit of not being an ostrich and burying your head in the sand, if they have any written DNR orders or other legal documents and where these documents can be accessed
The ER is not a comfortable place. Plan accordingly.
The job of the ER staff is to keep patients alive, and they do it well. What they do not do well, however, is provide for the comfort of the ER guests. That’s understandable, and it’s also something you should consider before jetting off to the ER empty-handed. I would advise taking a pillow and soft blanket for the patient and packing some for yourself as well, as I found the ER to be colder than a walk-in freezer. The patient may need a change of clothes, so pack something easy to get into that they can wear home. Take a notebook and pen for keeping medical notes. Pack bottled water and several types of snacks. You won’t regret it.
Get it in writing—YOUR writing.
Hospital visits are a total blur of doctors and nurses darting in and out of your room, inundating you with information and obscure medical terms that you’re supposed to remember after hearing only once. Do not be afraid to slow the conversation down to ask questions and carefully document what you are being told. You may think you will remember everything they’ve covered, but when you’re operating on a couple of hours sleep and a heart full of emotions, the brain tends to disappoint. Now is not the time to pretend like you know or assume you will remember anything. Once we got home, I couldn’t remember several key details of my mom’s rehabilitation exercises and had no idea who the doctor was who suggested them.
Write down the names of the nurses who help you and the name of each doctor with whom you speak and his or her specialty. It is a mistake to assume that everything you are told will make it into the discharge instructions (even if the doctor or nurse assures you it will be). Keeping record of names will help you follow up if you need further clarification on anything.
Be an advocate for your patient.
I know that hospital doctors and staff work tirelessly to care for their patients, but even the most competent worker can get sidetracked by an unexpected situation or onslaught of requests. Do not be afraid to courteously advocate for the needs of your patient. If the doctor said she would be right back with pain meds and you feel you’ve waited a reasonable amount of time for them to be administered, politely ask the nurse about the status of the meds. You are responsible for ensuring your patient doesn’t get lost in the shuffle, so do not shy away from following up. That said, giving the nursing staff the respect they deserve goes a long way, so chose your words and tone wisely.
Going home is no picnic.
When you’re in the ER or hospital in general, you’re probably just praying to go home. Once you get the OK to leave, the discharge process feels like an eternity. Once you’re home, after you’ve finished basking in the creature comforts that only your home can provide, you may find yourself praying to be back in the ER. I vaguely remember this phenomenon after coming home with my babies. Once you’re home and responsible for caring for yourself and that tiny human on your own, it gets real, real fast.
You may find yourself needing to help your parent with everyday fundamentals like bathing, going to the restroom, and eating. You might find this work to be uncomfortable, difficult, and just plain sucky. If you can recruit a few people to help ease your burden in some of these tasks, I highly recommend it. Trying to shoulder the burden of doing everything for your parents while doing everything for your family simultaneously is a recipe for a sudden and complete ugly-cry meltdown.
I learned a lot from my mom’s little topple from the tree, and I hope that the next time something like this happens—because let’s be honest, there will be a next time—I’ll be better prepared for the experience that lies ahead of me. But of all the things my mom’s accident taught me, the lesson I was happiest to learn was that no matter how busy I think I am or how stretched to the limit I feel, I will always be able to find the time to love those who loved me well. Life is pretty cool like that.