Since today is Groundhog Day, I can’t think of a more appropriate time to share the latest chapter in the emotional saga of my mother, Joy, aka Snowy Owl Woman. For the past four-and-a-half months, I’ve felt like Phil Connors in the movie “Groundhog Day,” reliving the same events over and over again, from carrying my mother’s Himalayan salt lamp, Pellegrino water, lavender lotion and living will from one new care center to another to gathering in boardrooms with hospital CEOs, doctors, nurses, social workers and physical therapists to offer my two cents about lackadaisical care and ridiculous Medicare restrictions.
It’s been exhausting and infuriating, and it’s opened my eyes to the horrifying way our country treats elderly people in their time of greatest need.
First, though, I should start with the good news: Two days ago, I saved my mother’s life for the third time since she ended up in this endless cycle of emergency rooms and rehab centers last September. This time, I’m hoping the third time will finally be the charm, and that brings me to the bad news: My mother has been left terribly frail from this endless ordeal and if her care providers aren’t extra vigilant going forward, she could very likely die or become bedridden for the rest of her life.
The latest “Groundhog” episode started about a week ago, when doctors at the acute care “mini hospital” that I’d fought to get my mother into after she developed a life-threatening bedsore at an “uncaring” center, decided that her wound was showing enough signs of healing to kick her out and move her down once again to the next level of care: another skilled nursing center. (The real reason — the one that they never want to mention — is that her allotted Medicare days had run out. Once these places have taken all the money they can, they always find a reason to give patients the boot.)
The day before the move, my mother had a panic attack, then became more tired than usual with no appetite. She also started to make some bizarre comments. “Cathy,” she’d say, “Please get that stinky stuff off the airplane for me and put it in the fridge.” Or, “Be careful — there’s a baseball stadium full of people waiting for me outside and some of them are with ISIS.”
It was alarming. Did my mother suddenly have dementia? Not to worry, said the experts, “we see this all the time. She’s just nervous about the move and everything will be back to normal in a couple of days.”
Although my three siblings and I finally found her a good rehab center, our mom continued to decline after she was admitted last week. She slept away the day and refused to eat anything except the milkshakes and smoothies I’d bring with me each afternoon. One of the center’s on-call doctors thought she was probably depressed and said he’d look into adjusting some of her medications. But just like before, when my mom was said to have a deadly sepsis infection and was languishing in a hospice room with “three days to live,” I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.
A couple of days ago, after a teary afternoon at her bedside, pleading for her to wake up and look at the world, I asked the director of nursing to call one of their doctors. When he showed up, he told me that my mother was an older woman with a lot of problems that he’d seen before. “I give her a one-in-10 chance of a full recovery,” he said. “I don’t know if there is much we can do.”
His eyes widened when I replied, “My mother has been here for only a few days and you’ve seen her twice. I’ve seen her my entire life. Something else is going on here and I would appreciate having a full blood panel done. Now.”
Realizing that “no” wasn’t an option, he quickly agreed, and the next day, I found myself waiting once again for blood lab results to come through a fax machine. And once again, when I saw the results (by this time, I can practically interpret a full blood panel by myself), I immediately called an ambulance. Just like before, my mother’s potassium was dangerously low. In fact, it was even lower than it was on the day I pulled her out of hospice care when I learned that she wasn’t actually dying of sepsis, but needed bananas.
Her hospital doctors (I’m on a first-name basis with a couple of them after three hospital stays) believe that her confusion is related to low potassium, and that the ultimate result would have been heart failure if I hadn’t whisked her in. So just like Phil Connors, here we go again. I’m hopeful of a good outcome, but our Snowy Owl Woman is much weaker now and nothing is guaranteed. Well, except for one thing.
Will I be paying a visit to that prestigious “mini hospital” to get my mother’s medical records and find out exactly who took her off those crucial potassium supplements and why?