A Candy Bar in the ICU

Tenley and I had to stop for gas en route to UF Health in the earliest hours of Christmas Day. I had been told by an ICU nurse “if it were my mom I would come,” so we drove as rapidly as we could to Gainesville.

In addition to the gas, I bought a Baby Ruth candy bar.

Managing Hospitalization

When we arrived at the hospital, my mom was on BiPap for her extreme respiratory distress. Over a course of several hours, the medical personnel tried different percentages of oxygen, various sizes of masks, and a spectrum of treatments to try to relieve her breathing.

When nothing they had tried worked, they brought up the topic of intubation.

Doctors had a conversation with my dad and my mom that went something along the lines of “you have said you don’t want extraordinary measures taken to prolong your life. You don’t want chest compressions but you are okay with being intubated?”

PLACEHOLDER FOR A DIFFERENT BLOG AT A DIFFERENT TIME: BEING INTUBATED *IS* AN EXTRAORDINARY MEASURE. AS A PHYSICIAN TOLD ME A FEW DAYS LATER (this is my paraphrase….) “THEY’RE PART OF THE SAME SET OF DECISIONS.” 

Once the decision had been made to intubate, we had to leave the room.

In a daughter-of-the-year move, I didn’t say anything deep or profound. I waved the Baby Ruth bar in her face (the one she couldn’t eat because a) her dentures were out b) her oxygen levels were plummeting to near-fatal levels and c) there was a mask over her mouth) and said “I brought you a Baby Ruth bar. I’ll save it for you!”

(Getting a Baby Ruth bar in the Christmas stocking was a treat my grandfather gave my mom every year when she was young and times were harder than they are now. The tradition has extended to our home — Wayne/Santa puts one in my stocking every year.)

I thought “is my mom’s last memory of me going to be having a Baby Ruth bar waved in her face?”

I ended up eating the Baby Ruth bar myself sometime in the haze of the days that followed.

She was relieved of that breathing tube within a few days, then reintubated for another 24-48 hours. She was moved from Cardiac ICU to Medical ICU, then to a regular room, and then sent to Lake Butler Hospital for rehab. That lasted several weeks. After being home approximately 24 hours, she fell and broke her wrist, landing her back in the hospital (North Florida Regional).

I had a nice visit with her on Sunday, February 11. I left her birthday card on the bedside table, thinking I would not make it back to the hospital before her 88th birthday on February 15. The breathing issues came back with a vengeance on February 13 and a decision was made not to reintubate her. She died that evening. I found the birthday card in a bag containing her belongings after she died.

We don’t know what to do when our loved ones are facing odds that seem at the time to be insurmountable.

Sometimes the choices we make have more to do with what we need in order to try to make sense of the unimaginable rather than what the loved one needs.

My mom loved the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

,Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

It was not a serene moment for any of us when I attempted to explain the Baby Ruth in my hands to a woman whose oxygen level was precipitously low. It was a moment (as were many over the course of her illness) when she exhibited the courage to keep trying to be a part of this world.

One time when I was a teenager and devastated over a relationship loss, she said “it doesn’t matter.” Those three words did come from her deep well of wisdom, but I railed against them for years. Maybe the thing is that I am dogged about change, in the world and in myself. “It doesn’t matter” is absent from my vocabulary probably much more often than it should be for my peace of mind.

I don’t know if she ever registered the Baby Ruth bar. I don’t know if anyone ever read her the birthday card.

It matters that she and I, over a lifetime, tried to find some middle ground between what matters and what doesn’t.

Mom’s Challenge

The first time I saw Michelle Kwan skate in person, it was her first year skating as a senior at the national level. This was at the US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, in 1994 (yes, there was a quite noteworthy event that occurred at that championship).

She was so young. I don’t mean chronologically only. I mean still a girl in many ways. Bowled over as the stuffed animals rained down onto the ice after her performance. Giddy with the thrill of it all.

(Figure skating side note: her sister, Karen Kwan, also competed at that championship. She skated elegantly.)

By the next year, at the championships in Providence, Rhode Island, Michelle Kwan was a different skater and person. She hadn’t yet turned into the force she would be eventually, a combination of athleticism and artistry that defied being beaten, but she had more notoriety, more fame, more expectations on her shoulders.

Mothers and Challenges

I can only imagine the challenges her mom (and dad) faced, starting with years of expensive skating lessons and all the accompaniments necessary to a competitive figure skating career.

Michelle Kwan discusses her mom’s sacrifices here, talking about how her mom sewed her costumes to save money and how both her immigrant parents worked multiple jobs. “I’d be yelling across the rink like ‘Mom, do you have gloves?’ or even a tissue and she was right there next to the ice,” Kwan said.

Moms often intuit our challenges before we realize the gravity of them (or, conversely, the fact that the challenges we think are going to break us end up not being as drastically life-altering as they feel at the time).

When Mom Faces a Challenge

My mom has faced her own challenge since she was hospitalized on December 11 when her heart rate/rhythm, breathing, and overall health were compromised by a viral infection.

Although her recovery seemed to be on a mostly upward-bound trajectory, everything changed when she had an allergic reaction to one of the anti-arrhythmics she had been administered.

“If it were my mom, I would come,” said an ICU nurse around 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve. My daughter drove herself and me to the hospital.

After several extremely tenuous hours, my mom was intubated and the immediate breathing/survival crisis was over.

When I didn’t know what to do over the days that followed, with tense nights in the ICU, another intubation, and the juggling act of medical needs/family member relationship management (not saying I managed any of that — just that it’s a fraught time when you’re trying to exchange accurate information through sleep deprivation and layers of dynamics)/keeping up with obligations to my two freelance positions, I thought about my mom holding my newborn son through the night so I could sleep.

Just holding him. Nothing fancy. No machines, no technology, no words.

Has a Challenge Been Met?

Michelle Kwan knew she had met her challenges when she tied Maribel Vinson for the most US Championships (9), when she won five world championships and when she won Olympic medals in 1998 and 2002.

I pray my mom overcomes her physical issues, which provide related emotional hurdles (she had to be readmitted to a hospital after less than 48 hours had elapsed following her discharge because she fell and broke her wrist).

I pray I can figure out how to give her the sense of reassurance I had when she held my son throughout the night, using solely the power of presence rather than words to calm him.

Editor’s note: My mom passed away on February 13, 2018. Her obituary can be read here

Mothers and ChallengesI am linking this post to Mama’s Losin’ It, for the “write about the word ‘challenge'” prompt.