Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

Perishable

As I obliquely indicated in recent entries, I've been spending a lot of time at the hospital this week. My father-in-law, who is a wonderful "papa" to my daughter and the best sports-watching friend I've ever had, went in New Year's Eve after experiencing shortness of breath on top of weeks of feeling extremely tired. I sat with him over the next three days watching college football bowl games, both because it's the sort of thing we like doing together anyway -- and therefore a way of increasing the dose of normalcy in distressingly abnormal circumstances -- and because it helped to lessen his boredom and loneliness. I happened to be there for numerous visits from doctors and nurses who all claimed to be baffled by his symptoms, since he didn't seem to have any of the classic heart or lung problems.

Yesterday afternoon, he came home. His wife called to let us know and to ask that we check on him while she ran to the pharmacy to get his prescriptions and the grocery store for the food he was looking forward to eating after days of being confronted by the hospital's incomestibles. Skylar and I had been planning to go to the park to play catch, but decided we could do it on our street instead. Before we started, we went to visit him. She showed off her baseball glove, which I'd spent the morning treating so that it would be sufficiently broken in to use. He'd seen her in the hospital, but was delighted to have her visit him in the comfy automatic chair where he spends most of his day. The hug they gave each other was magic.

"Don't put the glove on the sofa," he told her with a laugh, after she'd shown him how greasy it was. They bantered a bit before we went outside. Later, when we were switching from playing catch to playing with the huge, soft frisbee ring that Santa brought, we stopped by again. This time the hug was bigger still. We were just getting ready to check on him a third time when his wife came home, cheerily announcing that she'd gotten everything he'd wanted from the store.

When he called this morning, I thought he wanted to tell me whether the Cal basketball games were going to be on next week. He likes to check his satellite guide ahead of time so that I know when to come over. "How are you doing?" His answer took me by surprise. "Not well. Can you come over?" I told him I'd be right there, put on my slip-on shoes, and jogged over. The minute I walked in the door, I could tell something was amiss. Still, he was sitting in his chair, the way he does every morning. "Is Skylar with you?"

I told him she wasn't. "Good." He told me that I should wake up his wife, who was still sleeping in her bedroom. On my way back from startling her, I noticed that the bathroom was a mess. And then, as I looked at him more closely, I realized that he was in even worse shape. The same breathing problems he'd been having before being admitted to the hospital had returned, only exponentially worse. His wife came out and said that his doctor at the hospital had said that she should call 911 if he seemed to be having trouble. I told her that, yes, it was definitely time to call.

And then I asked her to fetch her nebulizer, so he could have an albuterol treatment like they'd been giving him at the hospital. At first, it seemed like it might not work, so I ran home for my manual albuterol inhaler and some towels with which to clean up the bathroom. I could tell that he wanted me to do what I could to restore his sense of dignity and make things easier on his wife. By the time I got back a few minutes later, the nebulizer was working, so I set to work on the bathroom. Within two minutes, the paramedics arrived.

I spent the next several hours with his wife in ER. They determined that he had pneumonia, which seemed improbable, since the lung specialist had given him a clean bill of health the previous afternoon right before he was discharged. I could see his panic as he struggled to breathe, even worse than when he was still at home. Eventually, he made it clear that he was willing to be intubated, because he was desperate to breathe. But because he was not stable, they couldn't fully sedate him, meaning that he had to cope with the intrusion of the tube in a conscious state.

He struggled so much that they had to tie his arms down, which led to his sensitive skin getting cut in a number of places. His discomfort was clear, but there wasn't much that the ER personnel seemed willing or able to do about it. It was horrible for me to watch, not only because I care about him, but because I've had many moments of respiratory panic in my life, particularly since moving to Tucson. In the end, I had to avert my gaze.

This evening, I drove his wife back to the hospital to bring his special knee-supporting pillow and inquire about what had happened to the favorite red shirt he was wearing when they'd brought him into the ER. Needless to say, no one at the hospital was interested in the latter quest. They did let her visit him in ICU, even though we had come at a time when no visitors were supposed to be allowed in. His male nurse was brutally honest, but projected a sense of competence that I found reassuring. "I finally got his blood pressure stabilized. But he's still in bad shape."

After we left the hospital, she told me that she was glad she'd gone to the store the previous day. "He got to have his favorite roast beef sandwich, just the way he likes it." Then she paused. "He's not going to be coming home in time to eat it before it goes bad. Would you take it? I know he wouldn't want it to go to waste?" I told her I would, trying to muster my usual enthusiasm for meat, one that he has always heartily approved of. Upon arriving back at her house, I went inside to move the soiled garments and the towels I'd used to clean up the bathroom from the washing machine to the dryer.

As I stood there, wondering what setting to use, she came into the laundry room and held something out to me. I glanced down at it, but couldn't tell what it was. "Isn't that something?" she said. When I looked at it more closely, I thought I saw mold covering a surface. "Terrible," I replied, almost inaudibly. "Well, you enjoy. I know he'd want you to have it." I looked again. It was the package of roast beef she'd purchased the previous afternoon, the one he'd used to make his favorite sandwich.

I didn't want to touch it. She took it back into the kitchen and added it to the bag of fruit she was also giving me to take home, the fruit she'd bought for him, the fruit he eats every morning like clockwork. Later, though, when I was unpacking the bag, I picked up the package of roast beef and let it drape coolly over my hand. It's in the refrigerator now. I want to eat the contents in his honor, but I'm not sure I'll have the will. But the sell-by date is approaching rapidly.
Tags: everyday, family
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