Friday, February 6, 2015

Diff'rent strokes

A couple of weeks ago, the worst thing that I could imagine happened. My Dad had a stroke.

Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?!

If you know my Dad, you'll understand why I have to describe this with a superlative. My Dad has never been someone to sit still and watch the world. He needs to be doing something constantly. He grew up on a farm, where work was abundant. When I was growing up, he worked shifts at the oil refinery, and on his days off he did odd carpentry and construction jobs. When his time at the refinery ended, he went into business for himself, often working sixteen-hour days, seven days a week.

I have never heard him use silly old chestnuts like "idle hands do the Devil's work." He has generally kept himself so busy with his own work that he has no time for the Devil's. Getting him to take some time off requires asking him well in advance, and then reminding him the day before. Of course, there are still no guarantees. I invited him to a golf day once, only to find out during my day-before call to him that he had lost fingers in a table saw accident earlier that day and wouldn't be able to play - since he could not grip a club! Nonetheless, mangled hand and all he returned to work the next work week, holding trim pieces in place with his foot while he hammered with his left hand.

Mike Holmes does not approve, but he admires your creativity.

For my father to be disabled by a stroke would kill him. And this is the man who, early on a Sunday morning, sat before me unable to move his right arm or speak.

As I watched him struggling to lift his right arm with his left, I couldn't help but think about my own annoyances caused by a (ridiculously minor in this context) rotator cuff injury. I have recently found myself trying to use my bad arm and freezing in place, realizing that I could not extend it any further. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. And here was my Dad, not even able to start that kind of extension. His effort to move his arm was greater than any that I had ever needed. But the movement of an arm seemed trivial, as I watched my father in his hospital bed, sitting in silent frustration. The horrible thought in my mind was that I may never have a conversation with my Dad again.

I kid with my Dad a lot because he is often, to use his own expression - "full of shit and down a quart." My Dad likes to talk, I like to listen, and I have learned through attentiveness over the years exactly how many grains of salt are required to get the most out of what he has to say. There's a certain charm to his way of speaking, and I couldn't imagine a world without hearing that. I ask him for advice frequently, often when I think I already know the best answer. I don't know what I'm going to do when he's gone someday, but it is even harder to think how he would feel being here and not being able to have his say.

"Seek advice, you do?" (Dad would probably ask why I put a picture of Kermit the Frog here...)

As always, the staff at Saint John Regional Hospital were doing a phenomenal job of taking care of him. The ER doctor took us aside - my step-mom, my wife and me - to talk to us in earnest. He explained the situation to us like this: because Dad had woken up with the presentation (i.e. symptoms) they could not be sure at what time he originally took the stroke. It could have been at 8:30 am when he woke up, and it could have been as long ago as midnight when he went to bed. There is a treatment - tPA - that they can use on stroke victims, a treatment that has the potential to to reverse the effects of the damage by immediately breaking up the clot in his brain. There are two problems with this treatment:

  1. It must be administered within 4 hours of the stroke
  2. It disables the body's ability to clot for a day or more, which makes the risk of bleeding to death very high.
Or to quote the doctor: "It can save him, but it might kill him".

Well, that was encouraging. I mean, the treatment can be very effective, if it's not lethal. And it needs to be given promptly, but we have no way of knowing if "now" is promptly enough. All the tests gave the doctors the impression that it had not been too long, but normal protocol with this uncertainty is not to administer the drug. So, having informed us, he allowed us to decide.

Our decision was instant and unanimous, knowing how Dad is: he would rather be dead than be like he was at that moment. But we realized that the right thing to do was not to make that decision: Dad was conscious, he was rational, and he was only 15 feet away from us. We had the doctor explain to Dad what we had just heard, and after an unmistakable affirmation (by an enthusiastic nod of the head) the doctor authorized the tPA treatment.

What happened next can only be described as miraculous. With the bottle connected to his IV, we sat around doing our best to just be an encouragement; but the encouragement was to come from Dad, not us. He started to say a few words. Not without a lot of difficulty, but clearly intelligible words. At the same time, I could see his right arm moving. He raised it off of the bed, and when the doctor noticed he asked him how well he could move it. Dad lifted it right up above his head. This was only a few minutes after the drug started its course from the IV into his bloodstream; just an instant after he was totally unable to move properly or speak at all, he was answering the doctor's questions.

It's hard to put into words how I felt at that moment. Minutes before I feared I would lose my father forever, or at least a significant part of him. Yet here he was, like a phoenix, coming back to life before my eyes. I may have wept a little. I doubt I was the only one.

To say the doctor was impressed with Dad's response would be an understatement. He took photos and videos of the event for posterity, and we were all crying and laughing at him, and at Dad who was trying to make tasteless jokes with the few words he could now get out, and at the whole situation. Dad was having a bit of an issue with swelling in his tongue, and so although he was speaking he was struggling with it. He was now also high on Benadryl, and laughing at himself and his own batched attempts to communicate with us. No matter. We got him back.

I've had a couple of weeks to think about the whole ordeal, and the whole event seems surreal. My Dad's birthday was the following Saturday; we had dinner with him that night at his house. Instead of retreating to his "smoking room" like we normally do, we spent almost all of our time in the living area of his house. He was puffing on an e-smoke instead, but still being his charismatic self. A lifelong pack-a-day smoker, this is a clear marker that something happened to him. But his speaking and movement look almost completely normal, even though I know he is still having some difficulty. Most people wouldn't be able to tell anything had transpired.

The notorious "Movember" photo from a couple years back. As you can see, without my Dad the world would be 50% less handsome.

But I will always remember, watching my Dad recovering from a stroke, like Lazarus walking out of the tomb. There are now things that I will never take for granted again. Our bodies are miracles, and the medicine that science has given us is like food for phenomena. Every day is a gift we must use to its fullest, because what makes life valuable is the time we have with our loved ones. Even with the best medicine and care, our bodies are subject to age and fortune and eventually will fail. But until they do, love your people with all you have.