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One Night in the ER With My Dad With Dementia

I walk in the house at 5:30 p.m. and strip off my clothes because I am covered in sweat after a vigorous walk in the summer heat.

I pick up my phone. I didn’t have it with me because I’m on call for work so I have to have that phone with me and carrying two phones while walking sucks. My personal phone showed two missed calls from mom, one from my boyfriend, a voicemail from mom and a text from mom.

Dad needs to go to the emergency room.

I sop the sweat off my body and put on some clothes. I take a quick peek in the mirror and throw on a hat to cover up my messy hair and lack of makeup. I text my friend to cancel our plans and I grab a banana on the way out the door because I know I won’t get supper tonight. I drive the mile between my house and where dad lives and they are waiting for me, with instructions and papers and oh also a box from Mayo Clinic with a lab kit if I could please ask them to do it while we’re there. I buckle dad into the passenger seat and we head to the ER.

When we get there, I repeat to several people the explanation of notes and comments from dad’s memory care facility and why we had to come here because he can’t pee, hasn’t gone for hours, and they couldn’t get him catheterized and don’t have a bladder scanner. I repeat a few times in a quieter voice that dad has dementia, hoping each person will treat him with some empathy and understand that questions they ask him may not be returned with an accurate answer, that dad’s dementia affects his pain perception and that’s why he’s reacting this way to having to wear a mask on his face, that dad is always cold and could he please have more blankets and maybe the warm ones? I repeatedly answer the question about where dad lives and I have to say memory care and dementia in front of him many times. He doesn’t like that.

I grabbed my prescription sunglasses on the way out the door but forgot my glasses, so I’m squinting and fighting off a headache and putting my sunglasses on every once in a while for a reprieve from the strain but taking them off if dad looks at me since I also have a face mask and a cap on and does he even know who I am? Just 24 hours ago when I was driving him home from this very same hospital, he said something about Andrea to me even though I am Andrea.

The nurse scans dad’s bladder and finds a liter of liquid. The nurse can’t get the catheter in. Dad is screaming and swearing from the pain. I’m standing behind a curtain because I don’t want to watch this but I can’t leave the room because they ask him questions like if he is on any medication and he says no. I’m talking to him through the curtain, trying to calm him down, which is the opposite of what the nurse is doing.

The doctor comes in and asks if I am the power of attorney, then makes a face when I say no even though it’s never been a problem all the other times I’ve brought him to the ER and she says she can’t find my mom’s information even though it is right at the top of the page from the memory care center she has in her hands.

There are four people with us in this tiny room now. They ask questions of me I answer with moderate confidence about his health history. Some talk to dad, some talk to me about dad. A young lady from the lab comes in to draw blood and I have to ask her if she would also please do this extra thing with this box from Mayo but I don’t know what exactly. She doesn’t know either. She takes the paperwork to the lab and comes back 20 minutes later. She politely fulfills our request, saving dad a trip to the hospital another day.

Dad asks how his dad died and says he tried to ask mom but she wouldn’t tell him. Dad asks if Bill and Donna are dead and when I tell him they are he doesn’t believe me. Every time dad hears a woman’s voice in the hallway he asks if it is mom. He asks where mom is and if she is coming at least 10 times. He talks about not knowing his sister was his twin sister and that nobody told him and that one time he rented a boat for five days that was stacked on top of another boat. He talks about Uncle Walt and how good he can ride horse and how he doesn’t know how he can afford to feed all 12 of his kids. I say I didn’t know Uncle Walt had that many kids.

A urologist comes in to place dad’s catheter since nobody else could do it. He takes a long time to set up all his things and while he does that he entertains us. He’s an older guy — dad later says he thinks he’s 80 or 85 — a comedian, putting dad at ease and getting his job done with minimal yelling and swearing from dad.

At one point the urologist says to dad that he hears he has a touch of the “old timers.” The doctor looks from dad to me and back to dad. Although he has laughed at many things the urologist said, dad doesn’t think this is funny. Neither do I.

The urologist leaves. Dad suddenly thinks the urologist was a mechanic and talks at length about how many people he helps and that he probably has vehicle lifts in his garage. Dad really liked him. He asks me six or eight times throughout the evening what his name was and each time when I say Dr. Hugo he says he had an Uncle Hugo who was a really fun drunk.

After the catheter is in and the urgent thing is fixed, we wait for over an hour. Dad thinks there is a garage door over his head and will it open and will it be cold outside? I assure him it won’t open. He tries every few minutes to get out of bed and get dressed. I tell him we should wait until the doctor says he can and he agrees that is a good idea and then asks again. I assume we are waiting for the lab report, but maybe it’s done already and nobody noticed? We have been here for hours and we both want to be done. I walk out to the nurses’ station. Nobody is willing to make eye contact with me. I don’t see our nurse. Ten minutes later I walk out there again and the nurse asks if she can help me. They are busy and the doctor hasn’t had time to come back to see us. I ask if we are waiting on labs. She says the labs are back, they are clear, we just need the doctor to write discharge orders.

I ask if they ordered a culture because last time dad had a clear urinary analysis but a bad triple bladder infection was discovered only through a culture. I say I would rather not have to come back here again in two days so could she please make sure? She sighs, pained, and says she will ask. She walks away.

Dad wants to pay me for the gas it took to drive him here, but says he doesn’t have a penny to his name. I tell him it wasn’t far, don’t worry. He asks if I had something else I wanted to do tonight and when I say no he says are you sure? I hold his hand. He says he’s glad I am there with him and that he loves me every day.

The doctor comes in 20 minutes later and says dad’s creatinine levels are up and they need to give him fluids. After that, we can leave. She asks me who his primary care doctor is because she needs that to write discharge orders. She is holding a paper from the memory care center that has the primary care doctor’s name on it. I point to it. Many more minutes go by before the nurse comes in with the IV bag. Except dad doesn’t have an IV yet. So she goes out to get someone to put in the IV. They can’t find a vein. Dad tells the guy he should sharpen his needle. The guy says he likes dad’s cowboy hat and now they are friends.

The bag starts to drip. The nurse says it’ll be done in 10 more minutes and she will be back.

There is a woman in the next room screaming and dad asks every couple minutes who that is and if she is outside. Dad bends his left arm repeatedly to bring his hands up to his chest like he likes to do, complaining about the pain and I remind him many times that his IV is in there and the tight cuff is checking his blood pressure and he should try to keep his arm straight so it doesn’t hurt as much. He insists on wearing his cowboy hat even though that means he can’t rest his head against the bed and he constantly pulls an arm out from under the blankets to push it down on his head. I tuck and re-tuck the blankets around him to try and keep him warm. His teeth chatter.

She comes back 30 minutes later and says, is the bag done? Oh, it’s not done, do you have your elbow bent? Oh, it is done. I don’t mention that it has been beeping for 20 minutes because it’s done.

I ask her politely for help getting dad dressed because his lower half is naked under the blanket and he needs a new undergarment since he is now wearing the disposable kind full time. She gives me a look but I don’t want to embarrass him by saying out loud why I’m not willing to do it myself.

I go get the car and it’s now too dark to wear my prescription sunglasses. It takes dad an extraordinary amount of instruction to get into the car, complicated by the fact that he has a bag and a tube attached to his left leg now. He is tired. I am too. We drive back to his place and at one point I feel like I shouldn’t be driving because I don’t have glasses on and my eyes are so tired I can’t see very well. Dad hugs the nurse when he gets inside. I tell dad I can’t come in with him but that he needs to eat and sleep and I’ll see him soon. He hugs me goodbye.

Getty image by sudok1