Waiting (a.k.a. Dimensional Analysis)

I’m beginning to dread Thanksgiving. Not due to the holiday itself. I like Thanksgiving. It’s much better at this stage of my life than Christmas and the “Winter” holidays.

IMG_0029
This is what I feel like lately.

It’s just that my Mom has tried to die the last two of the three past Thanksgivings. This year, she got a little too close.

It has a way of coloring one’s perception of holidays. Most of you have probably heard of that, if not experienced that, for yourselves.

It also completely warps your perception of time. Especially when you spend a lot of your time in waiting rooms.

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I imagine it has to be difficult to thoughtfully design a waiting room. No two people are really going to want the same thing. Do you put out a lot of coffee? Nothing ramps up anxiety like a few hundred milligrams of caffeine. However, it seems wrong to charge $1.50 for shitty hospital coffee. Do you put up a lot of TVs? If so, what channels do you put them on? Is there anything even worth watching? Invariably, The Ellen Degeneres Show is on, which is about as vanilla as you can get. There’s usually reading material, but it’s all celebrity crap. But I guess that makes sense. I don’t suppose anyone is going to sink their teeth into The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs while waiting for their mother to get done with a sigmoidectomy and ostomy.

I’d like to see some treadmills, and maybe an elliptical or two. Most people have some nervous energy, might as well let them burn it off, especially if you’re giving them endless caffeine.

I was in an O.R. waiting room, that for some crazy reason, had a piano (and a nice one at that). My wife pointed that one out to me. I suppose it could be soothing if someone played it, but that’s debatable. What style of music? Classical? Baroque? Ragtime? Oscar Peterson? Washed up Billy Joel? (Trick question – all Billy Joel is awful and therefore washed up). And who would actually have the guts to walk over and PLAY it? And how awkward would a conversation between a surgeon and family be while someone played “Candle in the Wind”? It didn’t make any sense to me.

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I’m not joking. My Mom, who has lupus, actually had a major diverticulitis flare up. She was admitted to the hospital on the Monday before Thanksgiving. She was born June 28, 1949. At the time of writing this, she is 70 years, 5 months, and 16 days old. 

When I’m in a waiting room, I don’t do a lot of serious thinking. My mind isn’t tied to the situation in the hospital. It sort of wanders to random stuff. I think I’ve even mentioned in my blogs before how my own mind frustrates me with the useless, disjointed facts I remember. I feel like it chokes out actual useful information. It’s times like this, when I’d like to be able to focus on the seriousness of the situation at hand, that at times, my mind takes a life of its own.

Earlier this fall, our small, 40+ year old in-ground swimming pool, which we were going to have removed anyway, literally popped out of the ground in a gully washer. Being a science nerd, I estimated the amount of force the volume of water usually in the pool would have applied and why it would have happened. This involves a lot of simple math → using one unit and converting it to something else, and then taking another relationship and doing the same. It’s called dimensional analysis. It’s not hard, although many students have a hard time at first. Just follow the labels and keep your eye on the ball.

Anyway, when my Mom was in the hospital, for some odd reason, I calculated how many seconds she had been alive. The update version, as of December 15 is:

Counting Leap Days, she’s been alive (by my count) 25,736 days. There are 24 hours in a day, so that’s 617,664 hours. Multiply that by 60, and that translates into 37,058,840 minutes. Another factor of 60 more, and she’s been alive 2,223,590,400 seconds. I don’t have her birth time on June 28, 1949, but a few thousand seconds are negligible in the calculation from a percentage point.

She was in the hospital for 10 days. Which is 240 hours, or 14,400 minutes, or 864,00 seconds. Give or take a few.

Sometimes it just felt like 10. Other times, it felt like the 864,000. I thought about that a lot. Time is a funny thing. Especially under fluorescent lighting, no windows, and you are actively trying not to worry. And death is a potential outcome for your Mom, whom you love very much.

It’s also an odd concept. Time is relative. It goes by quickly; it inches by. It flies by when you are having the best time of your life, and drags when you are in anguish. I’ve not found research on that; or, I should say, I’ve not done the research to see if there’s research on that. Perhaps I don’t want my time to drag on any further. But in those ten days, it both flew by and couldn’t get over fast enough.

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My Mom’s first four days in the hospital involved trying to avoid surgery. The hope was that IV antibiotics would “cool off” the sigmoid colon and she could avoid surgery while sick. Then, in a few weeks, she could have surgery to remove the diseased colon and connect her all in one go.

It didn’t work out that way.

The first four days in the hospital, each time I saw her, she was lying on her left side, clutching the bed. Considering my Mom has a HIGH pain threshold, that was hard to see. And, I don’t blame the doctors and nurses. They were trying really hard, and were taking really good care of her (my Mom and Dad thought so, too.) They were limited in what they could do. It happens that way sometimes. It doesn’t make it any easier to see, however.

I’ve asked my Mom since then (yes, she’s alive) what she remembers of those first four days.

“Nothing.”

Well, OK then. Maybe it’s more like 6 days. I’m not doing anymore math for now.

My wife and I brought up Starbucks coffee and donuts for the nurses on the day before Thanksgiving. I took orders for the staff – I was happy to spend the money. Allison, my now 11 year old daughter, helped me pick up the order. 

To be clear, most of the nursing staff that day consisted of early 20 to early 30 year old women. 

(Side note → Women really do run the world. On a holiday, 90+% of the hospital staff and about half the doctors were women. In not some trivial way, men, we should be grateful they even keep us around. The fact that there’s even a pay gap is abysmal. The equality debate should be over, yet here in 2019, we’re still here).

Back to the Starbucks order. I have a list of 10 drinks. I hand it to Allison.

“Allison, what do you see with this order?”

“Nothing, Dad.”

“No pattern?”

“It all looks normal to me.”

“You see, that’s the problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“Mochaccino. Frappuccino. Peppermint hot chocolate.”

“Yeah?”

“Allison, there’s not ONE regular coffee on here.”

“No one goes to Starbucks to get a regular coffee.”

“I go to Starbucks to get a coffee during Andrew’s soccer practices while I’m grading.”

(Silence)

“Dad, NO ONE goes to Starbucks to get a regular coffee. They’re not abnormal. You are.”

The nurses enjoyed their treat. A part of ME died while my Mom was in the hospital.

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Allison (left) and Sonia (right). Allison was my coffee errand buddy. Sonia just does things and is usually 2 steps ahead.

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Later that same day, Andrew (our son, he’s 14) got to visit my Mom in the hospital. She only had the energy for a quick conversation. She told him that if she didn’t make it out of the hospital (a very real possibility at the time) that she loved him and that he was a fine young man.

Thanksgiving night, I had a little bonfire going in our small fire pit. Andrew was hanging out with my brother. My brother went back to my parents house. Andrew sat outside and cried by the bonfire by himself. He had a little waiting room all of his own.

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I get along very well with my siblings. My sister lives in the greater Chicagoland area and my brother recently relocated to Denver. My brother was already coming to town for Thanksgiving. He was helping my Dad with things around their place. Sonia (my wife) and I were to host Thanksgiving, and my Dad suggested that we should just cook anyway – people were going to need to eat anyway, so just keep it informal and people could come and go as they needed.

Sonia was a rock, transporting people around the area – from houses, hotels, to the hospital, to our place, and back. When I wasn’t trying to intercept doctors and nurses and rounds, I was doing much the same.

It became clear – after looking at the doctor’s face on Thanksgiving – that my Mom’s body wasn’t following The Plan. We had held off on my sister coming down as she had just been in town. We stayed in contact over the previous days.

“Hey, Alyx. Think you can get into town?”

“How soon do you need me?”

Within two hours, she had train tickets for Friday.

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The thing is, medical plans are written in pencil, not ink.

Thursday night was rough for my Mom. She started having more pain and she became anxious. She started requiring more oxygen. They called a rapid response near sunrise and moved her from a regular room to a surgical step down unit.

She was due to have a CT of her abdomen done that morning anyway (a follow up from the ER exam from when she was admitted). I had seen the nurses and her regular doctor; I was there when they took her down for her test. Sonia came up to bring me some coffee and sat with my Mom for a bit. 

My Mom wasn’t off the floor for a long time. In fact, Sonia was in the room with her with the surgeon came in.

She had perforated her bowel. She needed surgery. As in today. As in right now. As in they’re opening an operating room for her.

My Dad, Sonia, my brother, and I were in the room. We got the “if I don’t make it through today, you know I love you speech.”

(Sniffles)

She Facetimed my sister on the train. She got the same speech.

How she made it through the next 4 hours on the train without bawling the entire time is beyond my tiny brain. Those 4 hours had to seem much more like 14,400 seconds.

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While waiting for my Mom to come out of surgery, my Dad and I sat in the piano lounge / waiting room. Our pastor came up and sat with us for the better part of two hours. In that time, there was not one mention of Jesus. Much like if I had spontaneously developed a second nose on my forehead, she avoided talking about Christ like the plague. She seemed to sense the needs that day were elsewhere. We talked crowded houses on Thanksgiving. We talked about criteria about for something to be considered a “Christmas Movie”. We talked holidays past.

She distracted us for two hours. I’m forever grateful for Liz for many reasons. She’s an intelligent minister. Moreover, she’s a better human – she has a sense for what people need. And she looked at the piano, but she didn’t take the bait. I kind of wish she would have…

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She came out of surgery with her sigmoid colon (or a significant portion of it) removed. She has an ostomy – and will for 4-6 months before she can get “reconnected.”

The surgeon told use to expect 7-10 days in hospital to recover.

And that made sense. She hadn’t eaten in several days. 

She was on 15 L of oxygen via nasal cannula. She’s on IV antibiotics.

Over the fall, given her lupus and the effect the immune suppression was having on her, she had already lost significant weight. She was only losing more since admission to the hospital. An up and down course was to be expected.

We were bracing for a protracted battle. Medically, it only made sense. A medical condition with a weakened immune system + medication weakening your immune system + major illness + surgery = longer hospital stay. The time, relatively speaking, was going to be longer. Maybe even time at a skilled nursing facility. Ugh.

I contacted my principals. I told them I’d be at work on Monday. My Mom, cautiously, was improving. Help was in town. And, the battle wasn’t over yet – there’s another one coming in the spring. Best to save those days – minutes – seconds for when they’re really needed.

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I went back to school. I hadn’t mentioned this, but this year I brought back Anatomy and Physiology to the high school level. I’m still teaching Chemistry and AP Chemistry – you’ll have to take those classes out of MY cold, dead hands. But I’m treating A & P like a mini-med school. And the overwhelming majority of the students have loved it. We’re doing cases and problems, and I’m giving the students a chance to solve them. They. LOVE. It.

My Mom was my Mystery Guest for my skin unit (Integumentary – she’s had squamous and basal cell carcinomas). Long story short, she was a hit. A rock star for a day, if you will. When class was over, about a dozen students surrounded her and fired questions about all sorts of non-medical things. My parents were my big donors for some used Chromebooks for the classroom, and that changed how I could teach the class. When they found that out, they really loved her.

So, I told them how sick my Mom was.

“Why are you HERE, Dr. K?”

“It’s my job. She’s not getting worse. I have help, and quite frankly, I’ll do better than a sub, even I AM a bit distracted. You need to learn. I’ll be ok.”

“How’s your Mom?”

“Not great, guys.”

“But she’ll get better, right?”

“That’s not guaranteed.”

(Silence) – (It hit home with them – someone that spent one class with them, and they identified with them; these kids – in an urban school district, kids that sometimes get looked down upon – really CARED. On Mystery Guest day, they CORRECTLY DIAGNOSED my Mom, and then gave her a standing ovation.)

“She’ll get better, Dr. K”

By the end of the class, as I had them doing their group work, I had a big “Get Well” card to take up to my Mom’s hospital room (she took it home with her, and I suspect it will be in their house until they move or she dies.) When I took it to her, she teared up – and despite all the pain she had been in, she recognized some of the signatures of some of the students. I didn’t cry; I just have allergies in St. Louis in December.

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The card from my Anatomy and Physiology class. I’d love to show you what they wrote, but that should stay private. It was REALLY very sweet.

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A little miracle happened. My Mom healed. And fast. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way, but whatever.

On Sunday, she started needing less oxygen.

On Monday, she started finally taking clear liquids – her first ANYTHING BY MOUTH in 7 days. She went for a short walk.

On Tuesday, the oxygen was off by the end of the day. Food was being consumed. Plans were being made for home.

On Wednesday night – she went home. With therapy and nursing visits of course. Thank God for my Dad and my siblings. That got a lot of visiting time in with her and prepped the house while Sonia and I were back at work. I’m thrilled that they got to see Mom get better.

Those 5 days seemed more like the 5 and not the multiples. It went much more quickly.

Since then, we’ve been cooking like mad to stockpile my parent’s freezer. My Mom is learning her ostomy care and can handle it by herself. She has a walker and is learning to take naps. She’s down 30 pounds from this summer. Like R.E.M. has sung, she’s “3 miles of bad road.” But she’s here.

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Time. Does it seem like days, minutes, or seconds? It seems like all of it and none of it. It’s just a blur. It’s hard to separate individual days into their own little compartments. When the $#&! goes down, it all seems like one event, interrupted by flashes of sleeps. I actually have to stop and think about what days happened when.

It seems like different people come to the rescue at different times. One of the teachers on my floor came in the Monday after Thanksgiving and playfully admonished me for coming in. I actually appreciated that, because I know she was paying attention and cares. It’s one more person I can lean on, should I get there. My principals had even told me – encouraged me – to take time if needed. Just knowing that I HAVE the option is a relief. That’s something new to me, and I honestly, I almost don’t know how to react. It’s still hard to overcome the programming to go, go, go. But I know I have choices.

Time. Dimensional analysis. What is it? I’m less sure now than ever before, and I don’t even think it matters how you look at it. Time just is. And despite all the words prior this (2826), that’s all I can really say.

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 42 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I'm occasionally active on Twitter; you can find me: @STLLenny and on Facebook (@trialofmilesjk)

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