Sitting with dad

Thursday, June 30, 2011

June 30, 2011

Dear Leslie

At 10:17 p.m. I am sitting in a chair in an assisted living facility. My father is asleep in the bed in front of me. A man neither of us knows sleeps in the bed beside my father's. A curtain separates strangers. Wheelchairs parked next to both beds await.

My father is here because he lost his balance bending to pick up some dirty clothes in his bedroom at home. At first we thought he only sprained his ankle, though he insisted he heard a pop. He broke his right fibula and tore ligaments. It took my friend Don's help to lift dad into a chair.

These bodies and minds of ours eventually begin breaking down. Maybe we wear them out, maybe we don't use them enough.

The surgeon who operated on dad's foot ordered a "sitter" to be in his hospital room at all times. My dad is an early stage of Alzheimer's, and the doctor didn't want him climbing out of bed.

A sitter literally sits in the room, occasionally taking notes about the patient's behavior but most of all making sure the patient leaves the IVs alone and doesn't go on any midnight romps. Dad had many different sitters during his five days in the hospital. Some were talkative, others just observant. It looks like an easy job.

Medicare pays for sitters at the hospital, not in the assisted living facility. But the danger of my dad getting out of bed remains great and hiring a sitter costs $25 an hour. That's why I'm sitting here deep at night in an assisted living facility.

I watch a nurse change the dressing on dad's ankle. She counts 18 staples on the underside. I don't look. The sight of his roasted-looking leg is enough.

Dad looks at the ceiling in the dim light. He can't find comfort. Sometimes he's delusional, we guess due to the combination of his disease and strong painkillers. He tries to get out of bed about 15 times during the night. Who can blame him?

He has spent most of the past week being drained of blood -- "Are you a vampire?" he asked one blood-taker -- being tested, being asked if he knows his birth date, being told the next 2 1/2 months of his life will be spent learning how to walk again.

When my father moves his booted leg to the edge of the bed I gently order him back and remind him that he has a broken ankle that could break again if he puts weight on it. He argues and looks at me as if he would rather not try to understand.

Dad talks in his sleep when it fitfully comes. He says nothing intelligible. Sometimes he makes noises like Karl Childers in "Sling Blade." Maybe he wants some french fried potaters.

Nothing's easy about sitting. Eight a.m. and my mom finally arrives. The day shift has begun.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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