October 17, 2013

WILLIAMS: Nothing is as black and white as you had planned


---- — My mother is in a nursing home temporarily — a beautiful new one in Wabash, Wellbrooke. It sometimes takes me two or three times to get the name right. (Wellbridge? Wellstone? Wellborough?)

Mom had a stroke about 10 days ago. I knew something was wrong as soon as she got up because her speech was completely garbled. I called her doctor who told me to take her to the emergency room. She was in the hospital for five days until they sent her to Wellbrooke for rehab.

In addition to the speech problem, the stroke left her with weakness on her right side. She can’t use her right hand and her right leg can’t be trusted to hold firm. The worst side-effect though is difficulty swallowing. She’s been on a puree diet. Pureed roast beef loses something in the translation.

It is strange how life has a habit of testing your most long-held beliefs. My husband had always said he’d never go through the hassle of cancer treatment if he ever got the Big C. But when the time came and his doctor said he’d live two months without any treatment but closer to two years if he agreed to chemo and radiation, he signed on the dotted line without hesitation. (He lived 19 months).

Now, Mom. I had always sworn I’d never put my mother in a nursing home (which I very carefully call a “rehabilitation facility” to her) unless she became totally bedfast. I never thought about swallowing. The main concern is that she will aspirate food into her lung and get pneumonia. That is a situation I don’t feel qualified to deal with.

And living wills. Mom and I have both had one forever. We both blithely signed off on no extraordinary efforts to save us, no feeding tubes. We both agreed to Do Not Resuscitate orders. Then they said at Wellbrooke that if they couldn’t get her swallowing under control, they might have to resort to a feeding tube in order for her to receive proper nutrition, I had to re-evaluate. I am her power of attorney and those difficult decisions are mine to make.

When we made these choices in our living wills, I think we both pictured ourselves lying in an acute care ward having reached the end of the line without the assistance of tubes and ventilators. It’s easy to say “unplug me” in such a scenario.

But the reality of Mom’s situation isn’t like that at all. She’s alert and positive. It cracks her up when I can’t understand her and she has to try to enunciate very clearly while I stare at her with an intense look on my face as I try to comprehend.

She eagerly participates in all her rehabilitation exercises, obediently lifting first one arm and then the other 10 times. While she’s sitting in her bed, she’s making a fist over and over to strengthen her hand.

She does this, she says, because she wants to come home and she knows doing her exercises is the best path to that goal.

Sometimes, situations seem as if they will be black and white until you actually face them and discover they aren’t that way at all.

Vicki Williams is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached through the newspaper at