I want to write about the time I spent with my grandmother in the hospital last week, but I don’t know how to do it. I start and restart and am at a loss. Because you know what it was like? I’ll tell you: it was depressing. It was simply not right.
When you see someone important to you, particularly a person who took such good care of you when you were growing up – a person who made it her business to generously take care of everyone in her family, neighborhood, and even city through her volunteer work – being cared for so poorly, it’s hard to know what to say. She’s not in what would be considered a bad hospital, by most standards. I don’t think that anything has happened to her that would be all that unique to the hospital setting in general these days. And yet I came away knowing that the care she has been receiving is substandard and disheartening.
Think for a moment about being legally blind. Imagine how it must feel to have your food tray dropped off near your bed (but out of reach) without a single word, so that you don’t even know it’s arrived and by the time you discover it the entire meal (already rather gross) is stone cold? Or, in the best case scenario, the tray is placed carefully in front of you with someone mentioning what’s on it before leaving, but you couldn’t begin to know where on the tray each item is located or how to open the containers. Imagine now that you did manage to pull the top off the entree and can smell turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy, and it smells okay to you – but your bed isn’t propped up enough to really be able to eat safely. And how are you going to cut the turkey, if you can even find it with your fork? Do you have a knife somewhere? Just think, as a blind woman, how hard you’d have to work to eat that food that you don’t even like, when you are feeling so ill. And yet over and over, the hospital staff drop it off and leave the room, expecting you to do just that.
Now imagine that you are in the hospital because you hurt your leg very badly and, being on blood thinner, you experienced horrible bleeding and are at risk of infection. It’s healing slowly and when you were in rehab you passed out each time you exerted yourself so you’ve been sent back to the hospital. Now they’re watching your heart rate and your blood pressure, trying to stabilize both. You know they’ve taken you off the blood thinner while your leg heals and you are supposed to be up and moving around for the sake of your circulation. Doctor’s orders.
But no one bothers to help you out of bed. For days. “We’re short-staffed,” they say, when they stop long enough to answer honestly. Most of the time, they promise to go get another nurse to help and never come back. Your doctor requests a specific chair but the nurses insist they’re all being used. They tell you that “the minute” one is available, it’s all yours. The next day, still no chair. But your granddaughter spots one out in the hallway on her way in and asks a nurse. And then another and another until she has requested it from every nurse on the floor. It takes four hours before it finds its way into your room at five in the evening, but no one stops to help you out of bed and into that chair that day.
The next day, when your granddaughter arrives, the chair she fought so hard for is out in the hallway, abandoned until she kicks up enough of a fuss to get it moved back in again. Days later, it requires the arrival of the Physical Therapist to take the time to move you into the chair. You’re so grateful to her that you tear up and beg her to come back tomorrow – telling her that you feel human for the first time all week – and yet you are informed that since you’re going to go back to rehab from the hospital eventually, you don’t qualify for more than this one PT visit.
And, wouldn’t you know it, that night you begin to have small strokes. Would they have started at some point anyway? Maybe. Can we say they were exacerbated by lying in a bed for a week without movement or PT exercises when not on blood thinner? I’d say so.
The trouble is, these days an advocate is required in the hospital. Someone to push for information, to request that the doctors talk to each other, explain things to the patient, and to get that damn chair into the room and get the patient into it. To notice that her mouth and lips are bone dry and make sure she gets water and chapstick often, to trim her long fingernails, and to puff up her hair a bit; after all, it hasn’t been washed in ages. To tell the doctor that she’s choking on thin liquids and needs a swallow study immediately – because no one watches her eat or drink, even though they think she had a stroke the night before. To find the button she can’t see that props up her bed, tell her that her tea is at 1 o’clock and the mashed potatoes are at 7 o’clock, and to cut her turkey and hold the fork out for her to feed herself. Who has time for such things? Not the nursing staff at this hospital, that’s for sure.
But when the advocating granddaughter sees that her grandfather is looking exhausted and it’s getting close to dinner time, the patient is left alone until morning. The nights are long and sleep constantly disrupted, the care is worse during the night, and there is no way for them to get back until lunchtime the next day, at the rate the elderly man moves. And so you survive the experience somehow, lying in your bed, minute by minute, until someone arrives to keep you company and advocate for you again.
In the end, one is left with the distinct feeling that while medication is adjusted and monitors are watched, the patient loses ground day by day in terms of strength and morale, which leads to further complications and longer hospital stays.
The fact that we, as a nation, are fighting so hard for everyone to have the privilege of this experience is just too damn depressing for me to think about tonight.