Master Blogger and Seer of Smurfs Le Clown is suffering with a bad back. Hearing of his troubles reminded me of when my dad hurt his back, and all the fun we had at the hospital and rehab center…
There is nothing like a bicycle horn to rouse a person out of a deep sleep. As an adult who is nearing the age when the dreaded subscription offers from AARP Magazine start landing in my letterbox, I’ve been woken up by many sounds. I have heard barks, bangs, booms, and bawling babies, but nothing can compare with the vein-popping blast of the common metal bicycle horn.
I blame the people at my dad’s physical rehab center. They refused to give us one of those nurse call buttons when we left. We thought it would be funny when friends and relatives came to the house to visit. My dad could show them his nurse call button and everyone would crack up.
It won’t work at home! they would laugh.
It didn’t work at the rehab place either! we would howl back.
The button is attached to a cord that, in the rehab center, is medically designed to snake around the patient’s limbs and then hide under the sheets, just out of reach. When the device is finally retrieved and the button pressed, a signal is sent to a little light above the patient’s doorway. The light glows red, which instantly alerts the medical staff that help is urgently requested within at least the next thirty or forty or fifty minutes.
You can go in the hallway and look for someone and tap your foot impatiently, but the only people you will see are other patients, who have crawled or wheeled themselves out to check if their own red lights are working; and people wearing the wrong color smock. There are throngs of people, hoards of people, all wearing the wrong color smock. You could be squirting blood from every orifice, but if the people are wearing blue or yellow or orange, they cannot help you. Even if you say something crazy like, Hey, my 86-year-old dad has to go to the bathroom, but he needs help because his fractured vertebra is hurting him, there’s really nothing they can do. If you pester them long enough, they may reluctantly offer a clue:
Maroon. You need to find someone wearing maroon.
But the maroon smocks belong to the little nurse’s aides and the little nurse’s aides are all hiding in the closet where they keep the supplies. They scatter like mice when the door is opened. If you have good reflexes you can grab one of them, and with a bit of pleading, they’ll help you. But don’t even think about trying to sneak her home after rehab, because nurse’s aides only thrive when allowed to huddle in little groups, and, once home, your little nurse’s aide will find your supply closet and burrow into it and eventually all you will find is a pile of fragile bones shrouded in red. And that’s no help to anyone.
Anyway, after a month of fear, pain, and dignity-shredding experiences at the rehab center (some of which was called physical therapy), my dad came home. He came home without either a nurse’s call button or a nurse’s aide. A friend suggested we get a bell, one of those domelike bells that you see in nice hotels- the kind that perches on the front desk like a silver boob and makes a chiming sound when you hit it. If my dad wanted something in the middle of the night, he could tap the little bell, and call me with a gentle Ding! It would be pleasant, almost like being awakened by a fairy.
We settled for a bicycle horn, that being the closest thing we could find in the garage. The horn was curvy and gleaming, a thing of beauty. From the black rubber squeezy bulb at the bottom sprouted a smooth, silver tube, which curled around itself and flared open, flower-like, at the other end. I tied the horn to my dad’s walker, pushed the walker within arm’s reach, and hugged my dad goodnight.
Now give me a toot if you need anything, I said.
The next thing I remember, my face was pressed against the ceiling as I was blasted from my bed by a cacophony of sound- HONKA! HONKA! HONKA! I hit the ground running. My brain was a blur, the only thought able to penetrate the insistent, frantic honking was that there was trouble at the farm! The goose was on fire, HONKA! HONKA! HONKA! Wake up, must save the goose! It never entered my mind that we lived in the city, that we weren’t farmers, and that the closest thing we had to a goose was the box of chicken nuggets in the freezer. I ricocheted toward the source of the awful noise, pinballed off the hallway mirror, and arrived at my father’s room having made contact with the floor only twice.
I wasn’t sure you heard me, he said.
I refilled his bowl of gumdrops. He took a green one and sank back under layers of cozy fleece.
That’s a nice horn, he said mintily.
I lay down, trying to breathe in one nostril and exhale out the other, the way yogis do, willing my heartbeat to slow. When I was fairly sure I wasn’t going to die, I crawled back to my room, where I spent the remainder of the night staring up at the ceiling. Trying to decide the best way to kill the bicycle horn. I came up with 37.
It was a long, slow recovery for my dad. It took him many months to claw and scratch and honk his way back to living independently. But our experience with his recovery is not unique. In fact, it’s representative of the health care issues faced by the elderly and infirm in our country. Thousands of people reside in rehab centers or nursing homes, encumbered with red lights that don’t work, surrounded by a rainbow of smocks, none of them the right color. These places are notoriously understaffed. My best friend’s daughter, who recently graduated from nursing school, reports that at times she was responsible for twenty patients on her shift. Rehabs and nursing homes will become more crowded as the majority of baby boomers enter their seventies and eighties, and it’s very likely the staffing situation will only get worse.
So I didn’t destroy the bicycle horn after all. In fact, I may go out and buy a few more, before it’s too late.
Here are SIX HOT TIPS! to keep in mind should you find yourself an inmate- er, patient at one of these hell holes of health:
HOT TIP #1. Do bring a bicycle horn if you can find one. Not only will it ensure prompt attention from the nursing staff on that floor and the floors immediately above and below, but it is a well-known fact that squeezing the rubber bulb on the end of a bicycle horn is an excellent and musical way to exercise weak or arthritic fingers!
HOT TIP #2. A color-coded chart will help you keep track of the many smocks and scrubs you will come into contact with. Ask friends or family members to bring you some paper and a package of markers- but make sure the markers include off-shades such as puke green, leaky-catheter yellow, and dried blood maroon.
HOT TIP #3. Use the paper and markers to make a colorful list of all the TV channels at the rehab center because the numbers will not be the same as they are at home. You can also create medication charts and decorative notes such as this:
Throw the note onto the ugly linoleum as far as you can- surely someone will be intrigued enough to pick up such a brightly worded piece of paper!
HOT TIP #4. Display a photo of your pet, the cuter the better. Even the stoic therapist from Finland will ooh and ahh over little Fluffy. In a short amount of time you will cease to be known as “The Bad Back in Bed B,” and will be affectionately referred to as “Fluffy’s Mommy” or “Fluffy’s Daddy.” The staff will stop in during their daily rounds to check in on Fluffy’s latest exploits, during which time you can casually mention that you haven’t received any food and it’s been twelve hours already.
HOT TIP # 5. Make friends with the other patients, particularly the stranger whose room you are now sharing. He has been there longer than you and can be a fountain of information- telling you where to find the birdcage or aquarium (every rehab center has one!) when the ventriloquist is supposed to come (so you can be sure you are indisposed,) and why you should absolutely, positively steer clear of the scrambled eggs.
HOT TIP #6. Try not to hurt your back. Seriously.