So Aunty, So What?

Published: Wednesday April 8, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday April 8, 2015 MYT 9:09:51 AM

My father, my child

It’s devastating to see the once-strong parent reduced to a helpless child in the face of old age and disease.

NEVER have I felt so helpless and yet so needed. This was last week when my father was suddenly hospitalised.

As some readers may know, Dad is a retired police officer and in frail health. Two Mondays ago, he was in agony from extreme pain radiating from his right hip down to the leg. We rushed him to the nearest hospital, a private one.

He spent three nights there while the doctors ran several tests to try to determine the cause of the pain. Dad is a prostate cancer patient and we always knew it would only be a matter of time before it metastasised, so we feared the worst.

While they were investigating, they tried to ease his pain by pumping in all sorts of painkillers. That was the start of his and the family’s nightmare. Dad started getting confused and hallucinating. At 5am on the second night, the doctor called me.

Dad was extremely agitated and aggressive. Disorientated by the strange surroundings, he had climbed out of bed and fallen, injuring his head and arms.

The nurse found him by the door as he tried to open it. In his confused state, he thought he had been abandoned by his family.

Later, I found out from my Mum that Dad had read a front-page story in a local Sunday paper about families leaving their aged parents in hospitals. Somehow that preyed on his mind, even though he and Mum have been living with me for many years.

For me to see my Dad reduced to a quivering old man staring at me with frightened eyes who cried, “Why am I here? How can you leave me here?” was heart-breaking. I wanted to cry too but had to stay calm and assure him he was not abandoned.

He only agreed to be wheeled back to his room after I promised I would stay with him.

From the MRI, the doctors said he had a pinched L5 nerve which they believed was caused by the cancer tumour pushing against his lower lumbar which fractured, trapping the nerve. They also said the bone scan showed there was metastasis of his T12 vertebra. The doctors warned that if the T12 collapsed, Dad would be paraplegic.

They recommended radiotherapy to reduce the nerve inflammation but we were to wait for the oncologist to give his input. Meanwhile, the physician had prescribed a transdermal patch for the pain. That was the fourth day.

After hearing all that, we decided to transfer him to Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) where he was a long-time patient under the care of a urologist there for his prostate cancer. I contacted the doctor but because no beds were available, we warded him at the private wing of the hospital, the Universiti Malaya Specialist Centre (UMSC).

That meant Dad couldn’t enjoy free treatment as a government pensioner but we had no regrets. His urologist quickly assembled the top specialists to attend to Dad: the head of oncology, the chief spine surgeon and a palliative care doctor.

After they reviewed his scans, they finally came back with a clear diagnosis: spinal stenosis. They confidently ascertained that the pain was not related to the cancer and even the condition of T12 was not worrisome. They prescribed a drug cocktail of steroids and other medicines to calm the L5 nerve.

By the time he was admitted to UMSC, the transdermal patch had kicked in as it took a good eight to 12 hours to work. The pain finally subsided.

But we were not out of the woods. The drug was so powerful, his confusion got worse and he started having severe hallucinations. He couldn’t understand what was happening to him, he lost track of time, he couldn’t recognise family members, he forgot our names and he was having nightmares, seeing ghosts and demons.

At one point, after the nurses had attended to him, he whispered to me: “Why are they speaking to me in Malay?”

“Because they are Malay and we are in a government hospital,” I replied.

“But it’s the Japanese government,” he whispered back. Poor Dad was back in 1940s, during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya.

Talking about nurses, I must commend the nurses in both the private and government hospitals. They were cheerful, kind, caring and professional.

Dad did have his moments of lucidity and wit. We kept explaining to him why he was in hospital and told him the strong drugs had befuddled him greatly.

So when my niece and nephew-in-law came to visit him, he cracked everyone up when she solicitously asked, “Ah Yeh, are you in pain?” and he replied, “No, I am not insane.”

Throughout this stressful episode of Dad’s illness, I am so proud of how my family pulled together to care for him when we realised he needed a familiar face with him at all times.

My two daughters and niece took emergency leave and took turns to stay with him, so too my son. My brother-in-law flew up from Singapore to help and took a night shift too.

My capable eldest sister living in Sydney was constantly in touch through WhatsApp (we set up a family chat group to keep everyone updated) and by phone. She even stayed up to advise my daughter and brother-in-law on what to do during their night shifts.

It wasn’t just a matter of keeping an eye on him; because of his prostate cancer, the caregiver had to help him pee at very regular intervals which meant little sleep through the night.

Due to his confused state, he didn’t know how to call for the nurses. Besides, he was too weak to walk so it required quick reflexes to get the urinal to him in time.

But the role of primary caregiver fell on me as I was most familiar with his illnesses – heart problem, diabetes and the cancer – and Dad felt most reassured with my presence.

That’s why I knew he really needed me but seeing him cry out in fear during his hallucinations and flaying his arms against imaginary threats made me feel utterly helpless.

After six nights in two hospitals, Dad’s pain was under control and we were able to bring him home, something he so desperately wanted.

Dad now occupies the hospital bed we bought six years ago for my Mum when she fell and fractured her spine.

After she recovered, we kept the bed because we always knew that one day, Dad would need it.

We hope to see him get back on his feet but we frankly doubt it. It will be a terrible blow to him as he has felt robbed of his independence and mobility bit by bit over the years.

He stubbornly kept his driver’s licence even though he has not driven in years and was finally persuaded to part with his beloved Volvo a month ago.

His precious gun licence was finally revoked last year by the police and he had to very sadly surrender his pistol which he had slept with for more than 60 years.

Dad was always the pillar in my family. At 87, he may have reached the final chapter of his life. We don’t know how many pages are in it but as long as we can turn the pages with him, we will make the most out of it.

That’s why my eldest sister and her family are flying back to spend time with him and celebrate his 88th birthday on April 21. To us, that is truly a gift.

> Aunty and family were not the only sleep-deprived people at the hospital caring for sick relatives. She believes those who abandon their aged parents are a tiny minority. Feedback to

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Columnists, prostate cancer, care giver, painkillers

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