In Which My Mother Scares Everybody

“She’s in the ICU.”

These are not words you want to hear about your mother. Well, about anyone, I suspect, but in this particular case, we’d expected her (relatively) routine back surgery - spinal fusion and correcting spinal stenosis - to go smoothly and to receive a call from someone on a regular ward telling us everything went well. Like always - yes, there’s an “always” – the poor woman’s had more than her share of surgery. Not the ICU. You never expect the Spanish Inquisition or, it turns out, the ICU.

The time for this conversation was 7:30 PM, much too late for me to somehow find accessible transportation that could get me straight to the hospital. Because that's pretty much the reaction anyone has in that situation. Go. Now. Get out of my way, I need to set eyes on my mother! I managed to get a ride for the next day and showed up at the reception of the ICU and was told to cool my heels for 5 min. I spent those minutes looking at a very cool wall of bubbles that I suspect is intended to soothe and distract anxious souls and it was pretty good at that. Going in to my mother's room, I was absurdly grateful for all the hospital shows I’ve watched, because it made the set-up with its wires, blinking displays and miscellaneous medical supplies much less scary than it otherwise might have been. Mor (Danish for mother/mom) was awake and looking pretty much the way she usually does after surgery, so everything being relative, we were almost normal. Doing well enough that she’d been upgraded from the one-on-one care she received the night before to being one of a couple of patients for one nurse. This was a good thing. Full of bruises, with more than a few tubes connected - she was positively Borgian - and in a lot of pain, but still. Doing better than pretty much anyone else in the ICU.

Before going into the hospital, mor had told everybody that she didn't want any visitors. Post surgery is entirely too undignified and fuzzy and then there was that interesting reaction she usually has to the morphine pump. The one where she becomes Mrs. Hyde, hostile and cranky. Which is relevant to the next part of the story because at this point, we were still a little iffy on exactly what has happened. Between the conversations Janne and I had had with her nurse the day before, we pieced together that she had had a bad reaction to some pain medication. The kind of bad reaction that interfered somewhat with breathing. Not for long and not the kind of not breathing that means not living, but enough that it warranted observation. When I was there, I spoke to the ICU doctor who explained that they’d tried an alternative to the morphine pump to avoid the hostile and cranky phase and when the fentanyl went down the IV, so did mor. Her blood pressure crashed and her breathing sort of went away. Temporarily. And this is where it gets funny. Because the reason this happened was that my mother is - and I quote - morphine naïve.

Seriously. This is what it's called. If you don't use opioids on a regular basis, your reaction to such strong painkillers can be rather drastic, especially when administered intravenously. Morphine naïve. Best phrase ever. Unfortunately, this is also where some of the funny went out of that because due to the strong reaction, they had to be very careful about gradually introducing a narcotic painkiller into her system, so essentially, she spent the first three days after her surgery not receiving very much pain medication.

The woman is tough. She's one hell of a role model.

They kicked her out of the ICU that evening and by last Monday, she was off the morphine, out of bed and started moving forward very swiftly. Unlike some, she did want to go to rehab - what? Too soon? – but had been so weakened by the pain of the problem for the past eight months or more that she wasn't able to. So she came home instead on Friday and although there's still some pain and weakness, she can stand up straight again and her face no longer reflects a body screaming with intolerable pain. She looks 10 years younger.

Thanks for scaring us, mor. And thank you to Dr. Lewis and his staff at Toronto Western for giving my mother back her ability to have a life without the crazy kind of pain.


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