Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Split Screen

My father's having one of his periodic medical crises. He's in Philadelphia, where my mother and sister are. My mother lives with my sister; my father has his own apartment.

Last night, talking to my sister on the phone after she'd had an alarming visit with Dad, I found myself bouncing back and forth between daughter-brain and chaplain-brain. I was upset and worried, but part of me was also very detached, and I found myself thinking, "Okay, how would I respond to this if my sister were a family member at the hospital?" I even pictured the two of us sitting in the dismal little room where I wait with relatives during codes. And I slipped into bizarre medical-speak. When my sister said that Dad had been able to get out of bed to open the door for her, and that he knew where things were, I said, "So he's oriented to his environment?"

Good grief. Where did that come from?

I'm sure that retreating into chaplain-brain was a defense mechanism, but it was a very odd sensation, like standing in front of one of those mirrors that shows you multiple images of yourself.

This morning, I called my father, ascertained that he was willing to go to the hospital -- he hadn't wanted to last night -- called the VA to see if they could arrange to pick him up (they couldn't) and then called my sister's house to ask if my brother-in-law could pick him up (he could). My sister was at work, although my mother called her to tell her what was going on. Dad wanted to avoid the expense of an ambulance, and I'm glad we were able to do that.

By some miracle, I also managed to speak directly to my father's primary-care physician. She recognized his name immediately, and when I shared some relevant parts of his history, she said, "I didn't know that. The ER needs to know that. Make sure that the person who brings him in tells them that."

So, just to be safe, I called the ER and talked to the triage nurse. I again found myself using clinical language: "You'll probably need to rehydrate him." (I'm sure triage nurses just love calls like this from family members!)

Again, I had the split-brain thing going on. I've had a lot of practice working the phones: I've done it for my father on multiple occasions, for my mother during some of her illnesses, for students in crisis, and sometimes even for ER patients. It makes me feel good to navigate bureaucratic mazes to get help for people, which means that I probably sounded weirdly cheerful and uninvolved both to the primary-care doc and to the triage nurse.

Or maybe I didn't; maybe I sounded just like any other fretful family member. Who knows? In any case, my chaplain-brain knows that I can't really chaplain myself, but it's trying to do that anyway. I've been telling myself the same stuff I tell family members. I woke up at 3:30 AM -- ouch! -- initially because a cat had jumped on me, but then I couldn't get back to sleep. I lay in the dark for a while, telling myself, "You have to take very good care of yourself right now. You're under stress. You need sleep. Go back to sleep."

It didn't work. So I got up, put on my chaplain/advocate hat, and started making phone calls. I'm feeling much better now that Dad's being seen; maybe I'll even manage to get a nap in later.


  1. Adrian9:24 AM

    I'm really sorry your father is having more medical problems. It's hard to be so far away when you want to help. It's obvious to me, and probably obvious to your sister and the hospital staff, that you're just bringing all your experience and skills for coping with crises to try to deal with this one. Try to take care of yourself.

  2. Susan, I'm sorry to hear that your dad needs to be at the hospital again, but glad that he has family near and you to advocate for him.

    This split brain thing sounds like a new way to manage stress and might be perfect for the present situation. I hope it works out well for you and that your family responds in a positive way.

    You will all be in my prayers.

    Peace and Hope!

  3. Nobody can have the sufficient distance to be a professional when it comes to family - which is why I spent two and a half years caring for my mother in law after her massive stroke while Cathie went on nursing other people.

    Its all very well knowing what to do, something else doing it.

    Take care of yourself, the first lesson of caring.

    As lee says, you're all in our prayers.

  4. Anonymous4:42 PM

    Susan, Adrian is right, your special skills are at work. Please remember the most challenging task for those of us who "should" on ourselves is to try to remember that if we don't take care of our own self first, we'll eventually be of little or no help to anyone.

    As you know, I've had lots of experience as a caregiver. I also had two serious, life-altering accidents before I stopped trying to control events and behaviors beyond my control.

    I encourage you to be especially cautious right now. Your stress was already pretty much off the charts before this latest challenge for your father.

    Blessings, Sharon

  5. It's amazing, isn't it, how we slip into jargon in the right context. It's hard on family, but you're right: it may make it easier to communicate with staff. Surely you've had the experience of listening to a patient or family member, and said, "You're in the business," because the person clearly spoke and understood "medicalese."

    For those of us who are "in the business" somehow, it's very hard not to use that language. It can catch the caregivers off guard, but once they figure out that you do know what you're talking about, or at least understand what you're saying yourself, they'll find it makes communication with you easier. Unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily make communication with the patient easier - that may be something you have to do.

    Prayers and blessings.


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