Shortly after my father died, I spoke to my mother about the fact that she was now on her own. She was sad but philosophical about her new situation, saying one of them would have to die first and it was probably for the best if he was because left alone he would never have visited anyone and would not have known how to ask for help, when he needed it.
Anyway, she said, that’s ahead of you all.
I never forgot the conversation, but parked it somewhere in the back of my mind. These dilemmas seemed to belong to the future, but what happens the day the future decides it’s time to come and shake your hand?
It started earlier this month, after lunch on a Monday afternoon, when my partner Ian began to feel unwell. The vomiting was quickly followed by diarrhea. We assumed he had eaten something and he went to bed, where he stayed until Thursday morning. By that afternoon he had started eating and although the vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pains continued, we assumed things were getting better.
After dinner on Friday, he vomited violently, went back to bed, and had a restless night. On Saturday morning I told him I’d call the doctor. “No, don’t,” he begged. “I just need to rest.”
Gastrointestinal illnesses usually last between three and seven days. He assumed he was reaching the end of what was troubling him and just had to see it through.
I called the doctor anyway and after the office visit he sent us straight to the hospital because Ian was very dehydrated and needed fluids. At 6 p.m. we set off for home; but in truth I didn’t see much improvement.
Something was wrong.
The next day he had been ill for almost a week and I became increasingly worried. His need for sleep was deep and urgent. He was weak. He was still throwing up, still suffered from frequent diarrhea, and his stomach was extremely sore. He had also developed persistent and violent bouts of hiccups. I told him I wanted to call the doctor again.
Again he asked, “No, don’t.”
I went downstairs and sat on the couch to figure out what to do. I was scared and could feel myself shaking. It was like an electric charge was flowing through every part of my body. I heard an intermittent moan from upstairs and stuck my fingers in my ears.
That wasn’t normal.
I remembered my mother’s words about my father. And I knew it was me.
It was a few hours before I managed to speak to another doctor. He urged me to keep an eye on the situation but call back if it got worse. They did. In the evening he coughed up black-brown phlegm.
While I waited for the doctor to call back, I lay down on the couch with a pillow over my head to block out the moaning from above. I wondered if that’s what it sounded like to listen to someone die.
In due course, the doctor agreed that Ian needed urgent medical attention and called an ambulance. I was now in full panic after hearing horrible stories about how long it took for ambulances to be dispatched. When I called 911 for an update, I was asked if I had a defibrillator (I didn’t) “in case we need it later”.
The ambulance arrived just before midnight. The paramedics said there was no point in following them because the hospital wouldn’t let me in. I went to bed and tried to sleep.
Sometime during the night, Ian wrote that he had an ER bed, was vomiting blood, and was taking morphine.
That, I thought, they give to the dying.
When I got to the hospital the next morning, things were looking bleak. Ian was still vomiting blood and his heart was racing. They had already done a CT scan but couldn’t see anything that was immediately wrong. The infection markers in his blood were off the charts.
They prescribed him antibiotics and later in the day he was transferred to a surgical ward. It was no better on Tuesday and seemed to be getting even worse early Wednesday morning. He said everything smelled of “blood and death”.
The doctor in charge admitted he had no idea what was going on, but thought it was most likely an infection. There was no evidence of a probable cause on any of the scans, and in the absence of more information he saw no point in surgery. He agreed that the situation was very worrying.
After the surgeon left, Ian told me he didn’t think he would get any better. I wanted to disagree, but couldn’t. He said some sad things to me and asked me to write down the text of the emails he planned to send in the event of his death.
I blinked back tears and wondered if this was the beginning of our goodbyes.
I let him sleep and went to the hospital cafe to join my daughter and son. I sat down next to her. Somewhere in the distance I could hear them talking. It felt unreal. That couldn’t happen.
I was always aware that you can lose your health in a short time. Both my parents did. One day they seemed fine, then suddenly they were unwell and never recovered. Was that what I saw here?
Later I stumbled back to the ward and spoke to one of the doctors. The blood results were back. There was an improvement, but he warned of caution: “One swallow does not make a summer.”
That was the first good news. When Ian woke up he appeared lighter and in less pain and was able to speak longer sentences. That’s the thing about recovery. It can also be quick.
Not as fast as the illness took hold, but once his recovery started there were improvements every day. Sometimes by the hour.
One afternoon he didn’t want to watch TV anymore. That evening he had caught up with the news. Text messages that were previously short and riddled with typos have become longer and more cohesive. He asked for something to read. An absolute aversion to the mere thought of food was replaced by spoonfuls of mashed potatoes.
He came home last Monday. He was weak, had lost a ridiculous amount of weight, still had no appetite to speak of, and was struggling to swallow anything at all without excruciating pain due to the damage to his esophagus.
They still don’t know what happened to him, but medicine isn’t a perfect science. Where we are is far better than what could have been.
This story has no great moral. One of them, I suppose, is not listening to sick relatives when they tell you they’re fine. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Listen to yourself. In these moments, you are all you have.
If that person happens to be a man, listen to them even less. As my mother knew, they are useless in reaching out for help when they need it.
The other insight is the oldest cliché in the book, but no less true, and that is being thankful for the things you have around you that are there to help when a crisis hits.
Healthcare headlines are rarely positive. But if you fall, it’s there to catch you. Doctors and nurses couldn’t do enough to help Ian. Her attention and compassion were humbling. Without them we would have been completely lost.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/this-summer-i-discovered-that-life-and-death-are-terrifyingly-close-to-each-other-41941827.html This summer I discovered that life and death are terrifyingly close together