(Warning: slight bad language ahead, as well as a serious topic)
Why does it always seem that just when I think I’ve got things figured out, life throws something completely unexpected my way?
I apologize that it’s been so long since I posted, but I’ve had a lot going on. I recently finished my first novel, did some subbing, and then went out of town for spring break. I was working on two different blog posts, one over the experience of finishing my first book, and one that was just a humorous experience that I went through with running a blog.
But, like I said, life made a mess of all my plans.
Last Saturday I had an indoor soccer game at 6:20. My dad and I headed off, and at some point while I was playing I got a phone call from an unknown number (which I didn’t hear). After the game, my dad and I sat around chatting for awhile with some of my teammates, before we finally got in the car to head out. A couple minutes later, my dad noticed that he had a missed call from my uncle Mike, my mom’s brother. This was very unusual, because my uncle very rarely calls us. Curious, I checked the missed call I’d gotten during the game–and I realized that it was also from my uncle. It was an unknown number because I forgot to put him in my contacts when I last got a new phone.
My uncle lives with my nana. She’s in pretty great health for 76, but she’s had strokes in the past that resulted in her having a lot of short term memory loss. She gets around wonderfully on her own power, but living alone for her is a little dangerous, because she might put something on the stove to cook and forget about it, or things like that.
As soon as I realized we both had missed calls from my uncle, I got a bad feeling in my stomach. Immediately I called him back, only to have my fears confirmed– my uncle suspected that my nana was having a stroke, and he was getting her ready to take to the hospital with my mom, who had stayed home from my game. Thankfully we live next door to my nana, so my mom–who deals with all of her insurance and medical history–was able to get right over to her and figure out the best place to take her.
Meanwhile, my dad and I had the long, thirty minute drive home from the indoor arena. We had no real idea what was going on, or what state she would be in. It was one of the most endless car rides of my life. My mind was blank and I felt numb, except for the sick panic in my stomach.
When we finally got home, they had gotten everything together and were getting my nana into the car. As I found out, we were incredibly lucky because my uncle and nana were having dinner when her stroke started. They were sitting at the table, and my uncle noticed my nana had begun to garble her words, and wasn’t making sense. He was able to recognize what was happening immediately and to give her an aspirin right away. We got her in the back seat of our car, and I slid in next to her so I could sit with her on the ride to the hospital.
When I got there, we think she was still in the process of having her stroke. I cannot explain to you how terrifying it is to see one of the people you love more than anything in that state. That being said, I was at least somewhat reassured by the fact that none of her motor skills seemed to be impaired. She could walk relatively well, and she wasn’t having any paralysis on either sides of her body. The only real symptoms she was having was the slurring of her words and the inability to make sense when she was talking.
I got a firsthand view of this on the way over. I sat hugging her to me the twenty minute drive over there. She kept trying to ask me why she was so confused and not making sense, but she was mixing up letters and words and not being able to get out her thoughts.
It was so upsetting to watch, because I could tell she knew that she wasn’t making sense, but she couldn’t figure out why and kept forgetting what we were telling her.
My nana has always been one of the most important people in my life. She has been a source of unconditional love to me since I was born, and if there is one thing I have never doubted in my life, it’s that my sister and I meant everything to her. We are her only grandkids, and she has enough love to spoil thirty grandkids–but she just lavished it all on us. Rachel and I were the prettiest, funniest, smartest, nicest, most talented and wonderful kids in the world, and nothing anyone said or did would ever change her mind.
I tell you this for two reasons, so you can get some sense of just how important she is to me and so you’ll see just how much of her character is made up of the loving nana, which was obvious during this entire ordeal.
If you have ever been around someone experiencing a stroke, you’ll know what I mean when I say their words just don’t make sense. Here and there they’ll be able to speak a few clear words, or maybe get out a mostly understandable sentence, but a lot of what they try and say is just a mix of garbled sounds or words that don’t have anything to do with the words around them. I cannot stress how terrifying this is, and how helpless it makes you. My nana was getting more and more frustrated, and I was getting more upset in direct proportion.
But my nana has always been one of the most amazing women I have ever met, and do you know what she did? She actually managed to make us all laugh. That’s right. In the midst of experiencing a stroke, while rushing her to the hospital, my nana still found her sense of humor and helped ease a little of the tension. In the midst of one the most tortured attempts I’d yet seen of her trying to talk, my nana just threw up her hands and goes, “Oh, shit,”–her favorite curse word. Then she grinned at us so big, that there was just nothing for it. We had to laugh.
Like I said, she wasn’t making sense when she tried to talk, and she could occasionally get a few clear words here and there out, but she couldn’t manage even short sentences–except for one thing. The one sentence that my nana could say, clearly and without trouble, over and over was, “I love you.” She must have told me that twenty times on the ride over there. She would be agonizing over her words, and I would squeeze her hand or try to reassure her in some way, and she would say, perfectly intelligible, “I love you, I love you, I love you!”
A curse word and her love. Those are the things she could get out with no trouble. That’s my nana for you.
As I mentioned, my nana has had strokes in the past, and it resulted in her having memory problems. She forgets things very easily, and will ask you the same questions over and over again. She also tells the same stories over again, often within the same conversation. This has never really bothered me, because many of the stories she likes to tell repeatedly are stories about things we did in our childhood. I think that says something about my nana, that the things her brain always holds on to revolve around her love for us. How could I be frustrated or impatient with my nana when the things she remembers and that makes her happy to tell us about are about how precious my presence in her life has been?
When we arrived at the hospital, things happened very quickly. They immediately got my nana back into the emergency room and began running tests on her. The good news was that she wasn’t having paralysis or any of the other common side effects of a stroke, other than the impaired speech and confusion. I stood next to her in her hospital bed, answering her questions as she kept asking them over again. The doctors were talking to my family, but I wasn’t really listening. A nurse kept doing tests with her to try and see if her speech began improving, but it didn’t seem like it was. They have a stroke test that they do where they have you read sentences and describe pictures and identify objects. She couldn’t do them.
After we’d been there for about thirty minutes, my dad finally caught my attention and asked me what I thought we should do. Wait, what? Do about what? I had no idea what he was talking about. Shortly I discovered just what I had been missing when I was focused on my nana. When someone has a stroke, you have the option of giving them a drug that can possibly reverse the effects of the stroke, whatever they are. Strokes are often the result of a blood clot in the brain that cuts off the oxygen flow to certain areas, and that is what can result in permanent damage–like my nana’s short term memory loss. So they can give you a type of blood thinner that hopefully dissolves the clot and allows blood flow to resume before the damage is permanent.
But there is a catch, of course. This drug has to be administered within three hours of the stroke to work. There is also no guarantee that it will work–it might or it might not. And, worst of all, it carries with it a minor risk of death. You see, they inject the blood thinner into your veins, and so it doesn’t just dissolve clots in your brain–it can dissolve any clots anywhere in your body. This can result in internal bleeding and, in some cases, your brain hemorrhaging, which generally results in death. There’s also the chance that if you don’t give her the medicine, she’ll get better on her own.
So when someone you love has a stroke, you are suddenly thrust into this extremely agonizing decision with only a very limited amount of time to make it. By the time we got to the hospital, got checked in, had initial tests run, and had everything explained to us, we estimated that about an hour and a half of our three hour window was already gone.
I’m sure you can imagine what kind of thoughts might run through your head when faced with this decision. What if we don’t give her the medicine and she can never speak properly again? What if we do give it to her and she has a brain hemorrhage? If we don’t take that risk, she might even get better on her own. If we give it to her, it might not even work. You just have no way to know–a stroke is an incredibly individualized event, and there’s a million variables that might affect each case. You’re just taking a shot in the dark on the risks, and the life of someone you love is the stake.
The doctors gave us our space and our time to try and make a decision. I went back to standing by my nana and just trying to talk to her as much as possible, to see if she was possibly beginning to improve on her own. When I first thought that she might be starting to speak a little more clearly, I was afraid that I was just wanting to believe that she was so we wouldn’t have to take the risk.
You might be wondering just how much of a risk there was, and it was admittedly pretty low– the doctors estimated about 6% for the worst case scenario of brain hemorrhage. That might not seem like very much, but let me assure you that when you don’t know anything for sure, and you realize the medicine might not even help, that a six percent chance seems like an enormous risk to take with your grandmother’s life.
We were especially scared because we know all too well that even with something that has minimal risks, the worst can happen. In 2012, my papa, my nana’s husband of 50+ years and my mother’s dad, went into the hospital to complete a simple, outpatient procedure to look at his heart. There was supposed to be minuscule risk, and not a single one of us thought that anything serious might happen. During the procedure, however, my papa suffered a massive heart attack, went into a coma, and died two days later. After something like that, it’s hard to take even a six percent risk with your nana’s life.
So as time is ticking down, no one is making a decision. I am desperately listening to every word my nana says to try and see if she is improving. At first, maybe one sentence in fifteen was making sense. It wasn’t looking good at that point. But after a little while, she would be saying maybe a couple sentences in a row, before things would get muddled again. Then, as our window began to draw to a close, I started counting how many sentences in a row she was getting out clearly. It was four, then five, then nine out of ten sentences she was saying were making sense. Finally, we were within the last ten minutes of our window, and still no one had made a decision. I said I didn’t think we should give her the medicine. I felt that she was beginning to get better on her own, and I was truthfully just terrified of the risk.
You might wonder what my nana thought of all this, and why we didn’t let her make the decision. But I promise we tried to discuss it with her, but even though her sentences were making sense her brain was still confused. Her short term memory was also worsened, and she couldn’t seem to remember what we had told her every five minutes. All she could tell us was that she wanted to go home–my nana has always been a very terrible patient. She hates people fussing over her.
In the midst of our last minute attempt to make a decision, the neurologist came in and told us that our window had passed and the time factor had made the decision for us. That was almost as scary to hear as thinking about trying to take the risk. What if we were just being selfish and we’d forced our nana into being frustrated for the rest of her life every time she couldn’t get her words out?
But, as you’ll notice, this post is called “A Stroke of Miraculous Luck” and it’s for a reason. We didn’t have too much time to worry that we’d made the wrong decision. After my nana’s initial test results came back and all of them looked actually really good, she was admitted into the hospital and moved into her own room.I knew she was going to be okay when, after the doctor told her she had to be admitted, she pulled her covers up in front of her face, leaned over to me, and whispered, “This is bullshit.” By that point, she was already pretty much back to normal. When we were getting her settled into her own hospital room, the nurse gave her the stroke test again. She did them all without fail, only forgetting a word one time out of three tests. My mom and I were tearing up. Only a couple of hours before she couldn’t have read a single thing on them.
Somehow, by some miracle, the stroke did not seem to have had any permanent effect on her. Maybe it’s because my uncle reacted so quickly and gave her the aspirin immediately, maybe it’s because my nana just has an unusually resilient brain. Whatever the reason, she was speaking normally and already throwing a fit about having to be admitted into the hospital barely five hours after the stroke. The doctors told us that she would have to stay to be monitored because sometimes a minor stroke proceeds a massive one, but if that didn’t happen and if all her test results came back clear she would probably be able to go home on Monday morning. Nana was NOT pleased by this news. She was even more displeased when she failed the gag test they gave her. This is when they test you by sticking a tongue depressor really far back on your tongue, which makes most people gag. My nana didn’t, and they were afraid that the stroke could have possibly affected the muscles in her throat, which meant that if she tried to eat or drink they might not function right, and she could suffocate. That meant that she couldn’t eat or drink until a speech therapist could check her out–and one wouldn’t be there until Monday. So only an IV for an entire day for her.
The next day and a half was a struggle to keep her from breaking out of the hospital. She was in as fine a form as I had seen her in ages, sassing us left and right and making us and the nurses and her doctors laugh. She complained about everything and asked if she could go home every ten minutes, insisting she felt just fine now and they’d kept her long enough. Sunday was a looong day, I can tell you. She kept trying to make us lay down on the bed with her or calling for another chair for my dad.
But Monday was even longer. Luckily, someone came in early to do her gag assessment, and they decided that she just had a really high gag tolerance, so she was able to eat. But as often happens in a hospital, things take a lot longer than they often are predicted to. Instead of leaving early on Monday morning, we didn’t leave until really late that afternoon. Of course, my sister and mom had gone to the cafeteria not five minutes before the doctor came in to tell us that all her test results looked great, she was being released, and he was starting the paperwork, and I thought I was going to have to sit on her to keep her from running out the door. She kept trying to make me let her put her clothes on, even though she was covered in wires and still had an IV in. She kept bustling around the room trying to get all our things together, and to be honest, I was exhausted just watching her. The hospital apparently really agreed with Nana.
Finally the doctor had signed the papers, and eventually our nurse was able to make his way back to us and get her all unhooked. He brought a wheelchair to take her down to the car, and she looked at him like he was crazy. “Is that for me?” she asked him. No, Nana, it’s for Rachel. Definitely not for you, the lady who just had a stroke. Then she told him, “I can walk out of here– I can RUN out of here!”
Thankfully we were able to convince her that was not the best idea, and we talked her into taking the wheelchair, albeit reluctantly. It just so happens that months in advance of this, my mom had scheduled my nana a dermatologist appointment for that Monday to check some worrying spots on her cheeks that we were afraid might be skin cancer. And as it turns out, she was feeling so well that we ended up able to make the dermatologist appointment–though she was less than pleased about going to another doctor instead of getting to go home. I just had this horrible fear that she was going to somehow avoid disaster with the stroke only to find out she had skin cancer. And yet, wonder of wonders, both spots turned out not to be anything. She really was fine.
The whole thing seemed to happen so quickly, and we went from such a low to such a high so fast, with an enormous barrage of emotions in between. Only two days before she had her stroke, we had taken her with us for the day out to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, and drove her all through it and up on Mt. Scott and taken her to lunch at a little restaurant we love down there. In those first terrifying moments when I didn’t know what might happen, all I could think was how grateful I was that we’d been able to do that before this happened.
And so yet again, I was reminded of this lesson– you never know what life will bring you, so you have to make the most of every day. It’s one of the most cliche sayings there is, I know, but in the course of my life it has been reinforced to me time and time again. So I just want to encourage you to take a minute to really appreciate the things you love in your life, whatever they are. Hug a family member, go to dinner with a friend, cuddle your favorite pet– because those are the really precious things in life that make it worthwhile. And if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that just when you think you’ve got a handle on life, you can almost bet it’s going to throw something crazy your way.
Miraculously for me, things worked out pretty dang well this time.