Yesterday marked one year since I took my grandmother to the Emergency Room with severe back pain. I never imagined that trip to the ER would mark the last time she’d live in her condo of more than two decades. One year ago, I thought life would return to normal in a week. Now, I’ve spent the last 365 days getting used to our new normal.
My grandmother was always one to tough things out. So, after she complained of back pain for a couple of weeks, we saw her primary care physician. Nothing obvious stood out to him upon examination, but putting a 93-year-old through a battery of tests was the last thing either of us wanted to do. Days later, her pain level became unbearable, and her doctor suggested we go to the hospital where all of the tests could be performed in one place. We drove the 45 minutes to the nearest hospital and sat in a crowded waiting room as I filled out all the necessary papers. We waited for what felt like an eternity before we were moved to a hallway where we waited some more. Trying to keep my grandmother, who was in agony at this point, comfortable was difficult, and managing my anxiety during the ordeal was an even greater challenge. Plus, we were sitting in an emergency room during the height of the pandemic, so I was nervous about our exposure risk.
What turned into a day in the ER quickly morphed into a nighttime stay (still while not in a room). Eventually, the staff informed me that I would need to leave for the night. Knowing that I had to leave my grandmother who was in pain and not in a position to advocate for herself, was the scariest feeling. I demanded a phone number for a desk on the floor so I could check in during the night. I drove the almost hour ride home tired, hungry, and scared for both of us. Around midnight, I called the desk, and they informed me that some tests had been done and that she would be moving to a room soon. By morning, we didn’t have anymore answers than we did when we arrived. The doctors felt that whatever pain my grandmother had was from old age and not from injury. But her time in the hospital marked the start of conversations around her living arrangements.
After a week in the hospital, she was released to a sub-acute rehabilitation facility near my house. The goal was to get her strength up through physical therapy. I had done ample research on the facility and even knew a nurse that had a contact who worked there. But when we were transferred from the hospital to the sub-acute rehab, I immediately had a bad feeling. It was a Sunday evening, and the night before a holiday, so the facility was light on staff. I stayed with my grandmother for as long as I could before visiting hours ended. As soon as I got home, I thought I should call the desk and check-in. My repeated calls went unanswered. Then, around midnight, I received a call that my grandmother had fallen and likely broken her hip. On the other end of the phone, I was helpless and in tears. There was nothing that could be done until morning, when she would be transferred to yet another hospital. By the time morning rolled around, I didn’t even wait for a call from the facility. I got in the car and drove there right as the ambulance had arrived to take her to the hospital. They were planning to take her to the nearest hospital which, due to COVID, did not allow visitors at the time. So, I spoke to the paramedics and pleaded my case. They agreed to take her to another hospital that was comparable in distance and allowed visitation.
The arrival at hospital number two was eerily similar to our stay at hospital number one. We waited hours before we were seen, and even more time passed until we were moved into a small room. Doctors there confirmed that she had broken her hip and would need surgery. I tearfully signed consent forms and we agreed that the surgery would take place the next morning. Another long and sleepless night came and went, and the next morning my grandmother was in surgery. Fortunately, she handled the anesthesia well and was in recovery the next time that I saw her. We remained at hospital number two for a week before conversations around her living arrangements arose. Again, it was recommended that she go to a sub-acute facility to improve her strength. Only this time, I knew where she wouldn’t be returning. I, again, did research and found a facility that happened to be right across the street from the hospital. Due to COVID, I was not permitted to tour the place before deciding to move her there. Luckily, her insurance approved the facility, and they had a bed for her.
When we moved across the street to the sub-acute facility, I didn’t immediately have the same gut reaction I had in the first place. We were greeted by the admitting nurse, who told me she had worked there for more than 20 years (always a good sign). I briefly explained our experience over the last few weeks, and she assured me that my grandmother would be well taken care of. Once it seemed that my grandmother was resting and I felt comfortable, I made the trek home. And, once again, around 11 pm, my phone rang. Only this time, it was the admitting nurse calling to let me know everything was fine and my grandmother was sleeping.
From the sub-acute phase of this story to where we are now would take too long to explain. After my grandmother completed her sub-acute stay, the evaluation was that she could no longer live independently. I reached out to several hospice organizations, but due to her location at home and the medical care she would need to treat the wound she had, they felt it wouldn’t be practical to get an aide and a private duty nurse out there for her. She remained at the sub-acute facility with us paying privately for her stay until I could come up with an alternate arrangement for her care. Unfortunately, there were none. She was at a point where she needed too much assistance to age in place at home, making our only option a nursing home. While this was the reality I was so desperate to avoid for her, I at least knew the place she was at took care of her. We decided to wait for a bed to open up and to keep her at the facility where it was close enough for me to visit nightly.
Now, 365 days later, I’m on a first-name basis with most of the staff (and some residents). The social worker and I talk at least once a week, and the aides know that by 5 pm each night, I’m sitting on the edge of her bed to feed her dinner. Her wound has mostly healed, which is a testament to the care she’s received, but her pain level and cognitive decline continue.
While this was not the reality that either of us ever planned, I’m grateful that I can be there with her each night to hold her hand and tell her I love her.