I went back to the doctor’s office and answered. The surgeon was on the other end of the line.
“Morning, doc. Just calling to let you know that your dad took a turn for the worse this morning.”
My heart sank.
“Meaning …?” I asked hesitantly.
“Well, his routine lab tests this morning showed that his hemoglobin dropped a little more than a gram to 8.9.”
“That’s not so bad.”
“I’m not finished. When he stood up to go to the bathroom, he got dizzy, began sweating, and almost passed out. Fortunately, the nurse was helping him or he would have fallen. He complained of stomach cramps and when he sat down to have a bowel movement, it was all black.”
Stool becomes black when blood in the GI tract is broken down by stomach acids or other enzymes. The medical term for black tarry poop is “melena.” Melena almost always means that there is bleeding from the stomach or duodenum (upper intestine).
“We got him back to bed and a recheck of his blood count showed that it went down to 7.5. His blood pressure was in the 90s. We inserted a nasogastric tube and there wasn’t any blood, so I’m assuming that his duodenal ulcer broke open. We’re going to transfuse him a couple of units, but chances are that he’s going to need to go back to surgery once we get his blood pressure up.”
“OK. I’ll catch the soonest flight I can.”
“Why don’t you let me call you back in an hour? I’m thinking that he’ll turn around.”
So they moved dad to the ICU, inserted a bunch of additional lines, and gave him some blood. He did get better. His blood pressure stabilized and he didn’t have any more black stool.
Instead of going to surgery, they decided to do a “bleeding scan.” Basically, a bleeding scan means that they attach a radioactive isotope to the red blood cells and let it circulate through the patient’s circulatory system. Then they measure the isotope levels under a large camera. If the blood stays within the blood vessels, the tracer is distributed evenly throughout the body. If the blood is leaking out of the blood vessels, the tracer collects in that spot – kind of like a puddle of blood on the ground. So if the bleeding is coming from the ulcer, there should be a collection of the isotope in the middle of his abdomen.
Meanwhile, mom was trying to correct all of the problems at home stemming from things that dad never told her about.
Dad’s drivers license had been suspended for the past two months. Notices of the pending suspension were unopened in the pile of mail that was at his office. So dad had been driving on an invalid license with no insurance.
The storage place wouldn’t give mom access to the locker because dad owed them almost $900. Either pay the money or the stuff is being sold. Tough decision. There were lots of pictures in there, but dad used to take pictures of crazy things like rocks and blades of grass. Before digital photography became popular, he used to make triplicate prints of everything “just in case” he needed them for something. Never did need a single duplicate for anything and he spent thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of dollars having them printed. He’d sometimes spend days organizing and sorting all of the pictures. Oh, and the stamp. Can’t forget the stamp. Every one of his pictures had a stamp on the back. He had a stamp made at a local print shop in CAPITAL LETTERS describing all the legal actions that would be taken against anyone who tried to do anything with the pictures without his “express written permission.” He used a bright red stamp pad for added effect. At the lower right corner of the stamp was an area where the pictures had to be numbered by hand. He would then enter those numbers by hand into a ledger.
Now all of that work … and all of those memories … were at risk of being lost. We couldn’t help thinking that losing the stuff in the storage locker wouldn’t be such a bad thing. If we kept it, we’d have to pay someone to haul it away and it would just end up in a pile somewhere else. So everyone decided to let them sell the storage unit contents.
Mom set up another bank account. We got the account number and changed the money that we were sending to their joint account every month to be sent to her account only. She left the joint account open though. I had a hunch why. My guess was that she was going to wait for their social security checks to be deposited and then take all of “their” money out of the accounts. Funny how things like that work.
I called the ICU later that evening to check on things. My dad’s nurse was kind of surprised.
“He’s not back from surgery yet.”
“Wait, WHAT? Why is he in surgery?”
“The bleeding scan didn’t show a source of bleeding. A couple of hours after the procedure, he was complaining of feeling lightheaded. His repeat blood pressure dropped to the 70s. Then he started passing maroon-colored stool. The surgeon had him transfused two units of blood and took him for emergency surgery. We tried calling your brother and your mother, but neither of them answered the phone, so we left messages to call back. We didn’t have your phone number.”
I called everyone at home. No one had received a phone call.
Responses were varied.
“Fuck. What the hell are they doing?”
“Are you sure these people know what they’re doing?”
“Shouldn’t we be getting him out of there to another hospital?”
I repeatedly told everyone that we have to trust the surgeon’s judgment. The only other possibility would be to do an advanced procedure where they do an angiogram on the intestinal vessels and use some medication to clot off the vessel that is bleeding. But they can’t do it if dad is unstable, so surgery is the only option right now.
They all went to the hospital.
And we waited.