Vitauts in the Hospital: February 10-13

“Old Age is no Fun”

After visiting Dr. S, we came home and it snowed. School was not called off on that Wednesday as it probably should have been, and I drove my Honda through the messy streets, picking up donuts for my morning class, and barely making it up Dodge street to 90th.

By lunch time, the roads were mostly clear, so I drove home, as I usually do to check on dad. It was trash day, and since moving in, dad has diligently pulled the trashcan back into the garage after the garbage men come by. He also has never, ever not gotten the paper in the morning. But today, both the trashcan and the paper were where I had left them in the morning. Unusual.

With my imagination, I automatically fear the worse. With an elderly parent, you just never know. I went inside and walked upstairs, and he was sitting in his room. Alive and well. “Dad, are you okay? You didn’t get the paper.” I handed him the orange bag holding the daily news.

“Jā, I am okay, I mean. But my leg hurts. I have some cramp and I did not feel like going anywhere.” And that was that. He seemed okay other than the sore leg.

The next day, he had gotten the paper as usual, but when I came home from school, he again complained of a cramp in his leg. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a cramp anymore.

On Friday, he was supposed to go to my aunt Valda’s house for a lunch party with his cousin John. Andra, my sister, happened to stop by while I was at school grading papers. She called me and said that he didn’t want to go to the party because his leg hurt, and he didn’t even want to stand up.

“It’s not a cramp,” I told her. “Have him check out his leg to see if there is any bruising or discoloration.” I was worried about some kind of blood clot or something. He refused to do any self check, and my colleagues overheard my phone call, so they all said to go home. They would cover me.

So I went home, and John and Andra were there with my cousin-in-law who is a nurse. She had a stethoscope and was taking his pulse and heart rate. He was panting in the chair. I called the doctor, and she said to give him some ibuprofen, and if the pain didn’t go away to take him to the doctor. I called back to tell her about his breathing, and they said to take him into the emergency room.

It was hard to convince him to go. He was very disoriented, and his voice was high pitched. I think he was in more pain than he would let any of us know.

After checking him in and doing some tests, the doctor told us that he had suffered a heart attack at some point in the last few days. The leg pain was likely a sign of that. He didn’t even know. He never complained about his chest hurting or anything like that. They gave him nitro glycerin and a blood thinner and checked him into the hospital.

He stayed for three days with visits from all of his children who wrote messages on the board in his room. He made the nurses laugh, and, of course, they all loved him.

One nurse asked how to pronounce his name. She got it after a couple of tries and said, “Vitauts? Where is that from?”

“It is Spanish,” dad replied, holding in the laughter the way he does, then smiling. “No, it is Latvian. My mom liked the name, so she chose the name.

We had a sobering talk with the doctors who said that he has congestive heart failure. His heart is not pumping nearly as much blood out as it needs to, and this leads to stress and strain, low oxygen levels and shortness of breath. There isn’t really anything they can do for him at this point, so we just want to make sure he is comfortable and that he doesn’t try to over exert himself.

The good news is that he came home on Monday, and he seems okay. He is not quite as spry as he has been, but he’s 89, and he still gets around the house, cooks his meals and takes care of himself. What more can you ask for?

On a side note, yesterday  we talked about his illness, and he didn’t quite remember being in the hospital. I showed him some photos of him in his bed, and he didn’t really recognize himself. He found it quite unflattering. I guess this is when losing your memory is kind of a good thing. You may be able to simply erase the bad experiences like wiping a chalkboard clean.

Oh, and another little story… throughout his visit to the hospital, he kept telling the nurses that he wasn’t hungry. He has a speech that I can deliver almost by rote. “I am not hungry, I mean. When you don’t work,  and you don’t really do anything all day, you don’t really have an appetite.” He will go on with this little speech for a few minutes. Then you put a plate of food in front of him, and it magically disappears. Even after the meal, when the nurse was collecting the plates, he would protest and say, “I didn’t really eat much because…” but most of the food was gone. It’s a wonderful world.

A few choice quotes about food. Given a bowl of soup, he looked at it and stated: “This soup? This soup is not for me.”

Given a plate with meatloaf and mashed potatoes, he said, after eating most of it, “This meat? This meat is difficult.”

And finally, “Old age is no fun, that I know. No, seriously!”

Doctor Dementia Feb. 7, 2017

I am trying to deal with yesterday’s visit to the doctor, so I’m writing it out.

Vitauts went to a neurologist in December for a dementia test. Susan and Andra brought him for what he described as “three hours of torture.” The neurologist asked him question after question after question making notes of what dad could remember and what dad could not.

The report was sent to my family practitioner, Doctor S., who is a wonderful woman, and who, I think, really loves Vitauts as so many other people do.

I finally made an appointment to discuss the results of the test, and dad and I went in together. I think I was a bit edgy just because I knew what the report would say. I am trying to be better about understanding my own feelings, but it wasn’t until today that I realized why I was tired and cranky yesterday afternoon.

After waiting a while, and watching dad kind of stumble his way through the waiting room, forgetting where he was and who his doctor was (despite me giving him a card with her name on it), we sat together waiting for Dr. S. The nurse was already enamored by dad, praising him and joking with him. He was smiling and laughing as he does, and he even took her arm as she led him to the examination room.

As we were sitting there, I had a conversation sparked by his question which seemed to come from nowhere, “Ja, and I do you know where Liesma, my dear wife, is buried?” I answered, “Of course I know, and so do you.”

“No. I do not.”

“Yes, you do. Think about it.”

He wouldn’t actually think about it, instead, just insisting that he couldn’t remember. So I tried a little memory exercise. “Name any town you’ve lived in.” He couldn’t. “Tell me where you were born.”

“Latvia.”

“Yes, what town?”

“I do not know.” I was pretty disheartened by this exchange.

“Yes, you do! Remember? We were there. Think about where your mom and dad…”

“Smiltene?” He remembered. We were getting somewhere.

“Yes!” I shouted. “Now, where did you live when you came to the United States?”

Nothing. He was drawing a blank. “I don’t even think I know where I live, I mean.” He said, dejected.

“Okay, how about presidents… do you remember the president who freed the slaves?”

He thought for a moment, “Lincoln?”

“Yes, and the town that Liesma is buried in?”

“Lincoln.”

“And you should remember Lincoln because you used to … ” I was waiting for him to fill in the blank, but he wasn’t getting it. “For 23 years, what did you do in Lincoln?”

He was a pastor at the church, the same church we still go to every now and then. But he couldn’t remember. This is what struck me so deeply. He was a pastor for sixty years, and here he had forgotten that part of his identity. How is that even possible?

Dr. S came in, and we had a wonderful visit. The neurologist suggested in her notes that dad find some groups to join and some social activities at some senior care facilities throughout the week. I told her that dad really wouldn’t like that. We had a conversation about what his daily activities were including his daily routing of doing puzzles, playing cards and cooking meals. She said that sounded fine. She understood him when he explained that he had already me thousands of people in his lifetime, and he didn’t really want to meet anymore.

“He is my kind of people,” she said. “That’s how I’d like to be when I retire. No pressure. On my own terms.”

I felt validated. For the past month, I’ve been feeling so guilty about leaving dad at home to himself, as if he is in some prison. But when you turn it around, and point out that he is doing what he wants, on his own terms, and he doesn’t need to be told what to do or where to go, I feel a little better.

The next part of the visit got a bit scarier. “How bad is it?” I asked.

She said he had dementia, and she described what would happen as it progressed. “He will forget how to dress, how to go to the bathroom, how to do his own cooking. He will forget who you are and eventually forget himself.”

We were sitting there discussing the fate of my father right in front of him, and yet he was oblivious of our conversation. The disconnect was unsettling. I could already see signs of Vitauts’ world getting smaller. He no longer drove very far away from home. He didn’t like to leave the house. He didn’t even like to visit with his children.

The worst part of it all is that he is quite aware of this memory loss. He knows it and it eats at him, gnawing at him each day when he cannot remember simple things that he knows he should.

During the examination, Dr. S proclaimed her love for this man. She even said she would marry him if she could. He does have that affect on people. Charming. He made a few jokes with her, and she was just taken with his wit. Here is a man who doesn’t even know where he is sometimes, but he can crack a joke about anything. How the mind works! It’s just so strange.

She prescribed him a dementia medicine, Namenda, that doesn’t sound too promising, but also doesn’t really have many side effects. She suggested that it won’t reverse the effects, but it may slow them down. After all, dad could and probably will live for several more years. He’s incredibly healthy, so we need to do what we can to maintain as good a life as possible.

It’s just too bad that we can’t do more.