A Wakeup Call if you’re a caregiver….

Photo by Bill Bufkins

Everybody keeps telling me I need to take care of myself. I’ve even mentioned it in previous blog posts. But I didn’t realize how vulnerable I was until Tuesday, August 20.

I was enjoying a very short break between teaching a demanding summer class and what will be a tough, long fall semester with a full lecturer’s teaching load (four courses) that includes two large classes, one of which I’ve never taught before. I was still feeling energized from Monday’s day-long faculty retreat, when we brainstormed with our new dean about the direction of the Journalism school. I was feeling good, although a bit stiff from sitting so much. (Yes, I need to get that sciatic nerve looked at.)  So instead of my usual morning shower, I decided to relax with a long soak in the tub.

After mixing a therapeutic bath cocktail of Epsom salts and aromatic elixirs I settled in with Marie Marley’s book “Come Back Early Today,” a poignant, loving memoir of her years as an Alzheimer’s caregiver to a brilliant, urbane man who was the love of her life–kind of like Bill and me. I knew exactly how much time I had to read before I needed to get dressed and drive down to UTSW Medical School in Dallas for a quick checkup with a doctor involved in the memory research study I’m participating in. Afterwards I had the rest of the week open–free and clear–to work on syllabi, PowerPoints, and other tasks related to the start of the new school year. For the first time in ages I was going to have a leisurely time prepping for classes, and would start the semester relaxed and ready.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.”  Woody Allen.

I still don’t know how it happened, it was so fast. I think I was drying off and about to step out of the tub when suddenly, as if by some mysterious force, my right leg went to the left and I went straight down, my torso landing hard on the edge of the porcelain tub. The pain felt like a white hot knife going through my right side, and I was also aware of my knee making contact with something. It took me a minute to catch my breath, and then I tried to call out to Bill to come help me, praying that he was within earshot and not outside cleaning the pool.

He heard my whimper and came running, but it took both of us a couple of minutes to figure out how to get me up and out of the slippery tub without doing any more damage. And all the time I’m thinking “Thank God I didn’t hit my head. No telling how long I’d lay here unconscious before he found me.”

I sat on the edge of the bed for a while, taking a mental inventory of painful body parts and trying to figure out what to do next. Bill hovered both helplessly and attentively. After about 10 minutes I actually started to feel better, so I took a handful of Aleve and proceeded to get dressed for my appointment. Duty comes first, right?

Less than an hour later I gingerly got into the car, Diet Coke in hand, and drove the 34 miles to Dallas for my appointment. As I waited with the research assistant outside the exam room I began to realize I had been in shock, because the pain was creeping in and taking over my torso. My breathing was becoming labored. I was happy to soon be heading back up I-35, knowing Denton Regional Medical Center was the last exit before the one to my house. Of course, here I am sitting in a medical school

full of specialists and I never once mentioned my accident to the doctor I was seeing. (He’s a neurologist–what does he know about ribs?)

The ER waiting room was deserted when I walked in, and I was immediately whisked to an exam room. The pleasant doctor who poked around on me asked if I had anybody to drive me home.

“Nope” I said confidently. “I live about 5 minutes from here.” There was no point in my going home first to get Bill, because he’s not driving now anyway and we’ve let his license expire. I had called him to let him know where I was, but didn’t see any problem with going to the ER on my own.

“Well, we can’t give you any pain meds unless you have someone to drive you home” the doctor said dryly. Looking around, I didn’t see any “no cell phone” sign so as soon as he left I started texting friends I thought might be free. My pal Jo was available and arrived just as I returned from radiology. The nurse promptly brought me a pain pill. About an hour later, after being informed I had fractured my ninth rib but there appeared to be no lung or liver damage, I was sent home with a prescription and a manual incentive spirometer to help prevent pneumonia. We dropped off the prescription and Jo took me home and got me comfy on the sofa with pillows, made sure a frozen pizza was in the oven, then retrieved her sister to drive my car home from the hospital. They delivered my painkillers with the car about an hour later, and I went to bed for a fitful night’s sleep.

Bill has always been an efficient, attentive nurse. In the 31 years we’ve been married I’ve had lumbar epidural steroid injections three times, carpal tunnel and cubital tunnel surgery, a lumpectomy, an artificial disc inserted in my neck, and routine colonoscopies, all requiring some sort of aftercare, as well as the usual colds, flu and pulled muscles that occur from time to time. The morning I woke up incapacitated by vertigo (eventually diagnosed as Meniere’s Disease) he was able to take me to the ER. He’s always spoiled me and I’ve probably taken it for granted.

Not any more.

When you have elective surgery or tests you plan ahead, make sure the house is neat and the pantry and cleaning supplies are well stocked. Under normal circumstances, Bill could just jump in the car and run to the store if we ran out of anything.

An accident is unplanned. It disrupts your life, and your schedule. When the roles are reversed and the caregiver becomes the patient, all bets are off. Bill can’t jump in the car and buy cat food or juice or milk when we run out. Carryout meals are limited to whatever is delivered. And I’m still not good at asking friends for help.

Bill also doesn’t always remember to eat, and unless I set alarms, won’t remember when either one of us is supposed to take our meds. The pool pump must be turned on and off, trash needs to be taken out, mail needs to be brought in. Stuff that happens on autopilot when I’m up and about may or may not get done when I’m struggling to get comfortable in a virtual pillow fort with ice packs and Norco addling my brain.

When I went to the ER I checked in on Foursquare, so everybody who follows me on Twitter and Facebook knew something was up. What is usually a narcissistic social media act turned out to be a good idea, because people contacted me to see what we needed. Meals were brought over. I actually turned down help because frankly, I wanted to rest.

This whole ordeal has made me realize I need to be more vigilant about having a well-stocked freezer and a couple of close pals on speed dial in case, God forbid, something happens again. I need to have MY medical power of attorney in order, and figure out a place to leave instructions for a third party to access needed documents in case I can’t get to them. I have to take care of myself because, as Father George continually reminds me, I’m no good to Bill or my students if I’m sick.

It’s another thing to add to the list, another thing to think about when I’m already thinking for two.

Join my team September 21 as we walk to end Alzheimer’s at South Lakes Park in Denton.

If you can’t walk with us I hope you’ll support my walk (or that of a team member) with a tax-deductible contribution to the Alzheimer’s Association

This post originally appeared on The View From Little D blog on Friday, August 30, 2013.

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