New Year’s Day wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was still early in the afternoon as I sat in the emergency department waiting room at the local hospital. My father sat next to me on one of those cold grey plastic seats. You know which seats I’m referring to; those that give you respite yet uneasiness at the same time. These seats are the hospital’s equivalent to an airline’s economy class seats, just without any padding.
I felt sad as I looked around the room. I wished the people around me could have started the new year in a happier place instead of being at the hospital. New Year’s Day is usually summertime in Australia. It’s when loved ones spend time at the beach, go on holidays, and enjoy the long hot days and balmy evenings together.
Dad and I had finally got to sit down after I spent twenty minutes at the administration counter. As per hospital rules, I had to fill up my father’s details so he could first see a doctor, and then get admitted into the hospital. This entire process was frustrating to me. After all, I had admitted Dad to this same hospital no less than four times over the last twelve months, providing the same information each time. Records, people, records, I grumbled inside my head.
We ended up sitting for close to three hours until my father’s name, Barrie Philpott, was finally called out. We were requested to proceed to what I commonly refer to as the ‘backstage’: the staging area in the Emergency Department (ED). This is where the patient’s pulse, blood pressure, weight, and eyes are checked. Patients are given the “once over” here to determine if they should be put in a bed or not.
Dad looked terrible as he sat waiting for the nurse to finish taking his preliminary tests. He was in his eighties, and was no longer the fit energetic sportsman he had been most of his life. Back in the day Dad would run, swim and cycle most days, even when he was working a full time job. On this day, he was pale, withdrawn and looking extremely unwell.
And yet, being the witty, comical man he was, he tried to make fun of being back in hospital again. “What a way to start the year. Not the best place to return to, is it?” he joked.
My dad was actually discharged from the hospital a few days before Christmas. My mother, sister and him were planning to take a short trip to Sunshine Coast during the holidays. Although he was still ill before leaving Gold Coast, he was determined, or let’s stay stubborn that everything would be okay.
Yet, here we were again, back in the hospital.
I thought that everything would be okay too. But then, two years ago, I came to Australia and took on the role of being the primary caregiver for both my parents. Since then, I have been in and out the hospital. It has been a baptism of fire for me, as I came to Australia after living overseas for so long. I wasn’t well prepared - emotionally, physically or spiritually to care for my parents twenty-four seven. Especially not after being a free man for so long.
Medically, my father had a bad heart. In fact, after several heart attacks, the doctors proclaimed it to be a miracle that he was still with us. To make matters worse, his kidneys had started to act up; blood clots became more threatening. And if that wasn’t enough, a few skin cancers were added into his medical records, as though for good measure.
From the time I got to Australia to this moment, I had became accustomed to discussing every symptom and medicine associated with heart disease. Information that I am always willing to share with others. Let’s have a little lesson on what a heart disease is since so many people suffer from it.
Heart disease occurs when the blood vessels of your heart are damaged or diseased. This leads to fatty deposit buildups called plaque, which can block the blood vessels or lead to blood clots. Heart disease can cause other health problems such as heart attack, congestive heart failure, or heart rhythm problems. These issues may even result in death.
Dad was a pretty fit guy, or so we thought. His weakness? Sweet stuff. When young and seemingly unbreakable, he would often fall into the trap of devouring as many milkshakes as he could every week. Then there was all other kinds of sweets and candies, and regular servings of ice cream or a hefty piece of chocolate cake.
Dad’s first heart attack arrived one day while he was walking my sister’s dog down a very quiet street in suburbia. He collapsed and was found lying on the ground with my sister’s dog sitting next to him. Fortunately for us, the person who discovered him at that state was a passerby who just happened to be a doctor.
That was the first save. It was a warning but also a blessing in disguise. We were all thinking the same thing: Was Dad finally “clean up his act” when it came to his diet?
Short answer: no.
Dad was always of the opinion that a life lived is a life enjoyed and that didn’t mean giving up the things that he simply loved. The sweets would stay.
Back in the hospital, as we sat waiting for someone to come and see Dad, I asked him if he wanted a glass of water. He refused the offer as he had done so a gazillion times before. Both he and my Mother disliked water immensely. It didn’t matter that I constantly nagged them about the importance of water. Neither Mum or Dad drank more than one litre of the clear fluid per day.
This time, I didn’t argue back. At the state he was in now, trying to ram a glass of water down his throat almost felt sadistic to me. A few minutes later, a doctor donned in a casual pair of brown trousers and a white shirt - whatever happened to doctors in white coats? - walked up to us and introduced himself as Brian.
Dr. Brian had a thick English accent. If I were to guess, I would say he was probably from Essex in the UK, or somewhere nearby. But that wasn’t important. At that moment, it was all about Dad, and what was about to happen next. The doctor started asking Dad what was wrong and how he felt. Dad boasted that he was fine, despite his terrible presentation, low blood pressure and the fact he could hardly stand by himself. This had been one of the rare times that Dad didn’t reach the hospital in an ambulance.
The doctor looked at Dad’s earlier preliminary test results. He pointed out that Dad’s pulse wasn’t normal.
“Ok, we’re going to get you a bed now, and will start checking out what’s going on,” Dr. Brian said.
As quickly as he had announced that, he was off.
Dad looked at me and rolled his eyes. “Here we go again, Mark,” he said.
Everything will be okay, Dad, I wanted to tell him. I tried to comfort him but something inside me said that this time was different. He looked worse than ever, and I think he knew it as well.
The ED was in chaos. People were being wheeled past on beds at a rate of knots. A lady was screaming behind a bed curtain, another nurse was yelling for help with a man that was causing some difficulties. Phones were ringing, pagers were going off, and doors were opening and closing faster than feeding time at a zoo.
Meanwhile, millions of people across the country were enjoying New Year’s Day. Resolutions were being made, only to be forgotten about in hours, days weeks or months. Many of those New Year’s resolutions were commitments made to improving one’s health and wellbeing. I wondered for a second how many people arriving into the hospital on this afternoon had made such commitments in the previous twelve hours.
There wasn’t much in the way of talk going on between Dad and I. There never had been for the past fifty plus years. We had what many would call a distant and cold relationship. As a wee tacker growing up in sleepy New Plymouth, a small coastal city in New Zealand’s North Island, I had always preferred time with my grandparents. My grandfather invested time in me. He was the one who helped me build a treehouse in their back yard. He also taught me to drive, something he started doing when I was a wee boy, by placing me between his legs whenever he would start the car.
When I was a kid, Dad wasn’t around much, emotionally or spiritually. He worked full time. When he got home, it was the usual dinner together as a family, after which I would shuffle to my bedroom while Mum and Dad watched television until bedtime. When I came to Australia to look after my parents all these years later, their routine had hardly changed.
This absent father situation created a great divide between Dad and I. Couple that with the fact that I left New Plymouth at a young age to chase my overseas dreams like most Kiwi teenagers. I hardly returned home and with the distance of tyranny, we never developed any form of bond between father and son.
As I sat there and looked across to my father, I felt sadness once again. Each time we visited the hospital, I felt like it was going to be the end. Would this be the last chance we had to try and cross that bridge? If only I knew back then that this was indeed our last chance to make amends.
I snapped out of my thoughts when I noticed a nurse who appeared out of nowhere.
“Barrie Philpott,” she said, looking at Dad.
“That’s me,” he replied in a dull yet hopeful voice.
“Follow me, young man, we have a bed for you just around the corner.”
I helped Dad up from the chair. I noticed that his blue track pants were falling off his waist; his weight loss over recent months was worrying. On his feet, he was hardly able to keep up with the nurse who disappeared out of sight once she the turned to the right of the corridor.
I went slightly ahead of Dad to ensure we didn’t lose her in her haste to get to the bed that Dad would find himself moments later. The routine was the same. Dad would sit on the left side of the bed, remove his fawn coloured shirt and grey sweat top, I would take them from him, and he would put on the hideous hospital gown that the nurse handed to him.
The flimsy white fabric hardly covered his body, with its silly draw strings across the shoulders and back allowing for ventilation. Unlike the scorching summer temperatures outside of the hospital though, the air conditioned hallways inside created an ecosystem more suited to penguins and moose rather than one for an eighty year old frail man.
Dad laid down on the bed, resigned to the fact that he was ‘here again’. He knew what was about to happen next. The nurse reappeared at warp speed. This one would do a fine job as a character in Star Trek, I thought to myself. She was wheeling a blood pressure trolley towards Dad, who already had his left arm extended, ready for the inevitable procedure that he already knew by heart.
In what I deem as an attempt to make him feel better, the nurse started engaging my dad in small task. She asked him how his day was.
“Hmm yeah, it’s ok, but I am here now, so what do you think?” he replied.
That was about the end of their conversation. Moments later, the blood pressure arm band pumped itself up on his arm and then slowly deflated again. Ping, it went. The “ping” sound made me think of the Monty Python movie which had the machine that went ping. A story for another day, perhaps.
Dad was now settled into watching people rushing by the area within his field of vision. Hospitals are incredibly noisy places; people rushing around and yet, time goes by so slowly.
I sat next to Dad’s bed on one of those classroom-like chairs with a square back. I looked around the sparsely furnished room. A box with rubber gloves hung on one wall above a sink. Behind the bed, there was a fire extinguisher, many power points, a box of nausea bags, and a mini oxygen tank. The lights above were those common to hospitals; the ones that would shine as brightly as the seventy-nine moons that exist around the planet Jupiter.
Hospitals sure are a difficult place for one to feel calm and at peace. I sat next to Dad’s bed wondering what was going on inside his head. I wondered about the journey he was on. We never had the kind of relationship where emotions or feelings were shared. It was always small talk, and just light conversation to pass the time of day when we did speak.
In my younger days, I would pay attention to when he and my mother would talk. It was almost like a business conversation. Practical and efficient, rather than loving and caring. I knew my father had a sick sense of humour but he was never allowed to show that in the family home: he was ridiculed every time he tried to do so.
Now here he was, stepping once again into the unknown. Facing perhaps his biggest emotional test ever. And here I was beside him.
It seemed like an eternity before anyone else came to check on Dad. He appeared settled and was contented to watch the hustle and bustle in the hospital. I guess it was his way of taking his mind off things to some extent, but I can never know for sure.
Just as I was about to give up all hope on mankind, Dr. Brian appeared.
“So Barrie, how are you feeling now?” he inquired as he approached the vicinity of Dad’s bed.
My dad responded in the way he usually does.
“Yeah, not too bad.” Nonchalantly.
Half between a lie and, well yeah, a lie, I suspected.
“Any pain?” the doctor asked.
“No, not really,” came a typical Barrie Philpott answer: non-committal and perhaps some way from the truth.
“Well, we are going to do some more tests and see if we can find out what’s going on. I have looked at your records in our system and I see that you have been a regular visitor here over the past couple of years.”
Dad tried to smile. He nodded and said, “Yes, I have been here far too many times.”
Dr. Brian then took the stethoscope hanging around his neck and put the cold shiny bit on Dad’s chest. He listened to Dad’s heartbeat, and listened and listened.
“How’s your breathing?” he asked. Which seemed like a weird question to me. What’s the stethoscope for, then? I wondered.
Dad attempted another smile. “Yeah, it’s good. No problem.”
Dr. Brian turned to the nurse standing behind his left shoulder and said, “I’d like Barrie to have a chest and stomach x-ray.”
“Sure thing,” the nurse replied.
Dr. Brian then looked at Dad and confirmed his intentions.
“We are going to get these x-rays done. I want to see what’s going on inside, and we will get your blood test done as well.”
Dad’s expected response: “Ok, sounds good.”
With a nod, Dr. Brian was off as fast as he had arrived with the nurse trailing behind him with a clip chart in hand. I watched both of them go. In many of the hospital visits when I accompanied Dad, I would play a little game inside my head - mostly to cure my boredom. I would rank the nurses and doctors on their “customer service values” - or that’s what I called it, at least.
Marks depended on qualities like friendliness, compassion, caring attitude and ability to smile. The lack of whinging about patients usually would give them a low score. Dr. Brian and this nurse did fairly well on the scale.
By the time they left, it was coming up to 4.30 pm. I looked across at Dad. He looked tired. We had no idea how long it would be until someone came and took him away for his x-rays.
Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long. Fifteen minutes later, a bright and cheery fellow appeared in our cubicle.
“G’day mate, how we going? You Barrie Philpott?” he sang.
Dad perked up a bit with the sound of a friendly voice coupled with that notion that some action was finally happening.
“That’s me!” Dad quickly replied.
“Ok great, mate. We are going to shoot you off for a quick dip under the x-ray machine and then get you settled in a ward somewhere, how does that sound?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Dad in his usual short and sweet manner.
“Ok, let me find us a wheelchair and we’ll get you out of here.”
I was grateful to our new joyful friend for recognising that Dad was not well enough to walk. I had no idea how far it was to the x-ray room, so it was a good call on his part.
It was a little after 6.30 pm when Dad ended his tests and was rolled to rest in his new bed. It was a long and arduous day for him. Fortunately, he had a window view and the setting sun created a magnificent orange sky that glowed outside of his window.
“Dad, look at that sunset,” I attempted to make conversation.
Dad glanced towards the window, but I could see his mind was elsewhere. I tried to shine a little ray of hope after a long hard day for both of us. I could only hope that a little joy made its way into his heart at that moment although he didn’t say anything.
After updating Mum at home, I settled into a slightly more comfortable armchair beside Dad’s bed. I hoped that, at the very least, my presence would make him feel loved in some way.
All of a sudden, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility that I never had felt before. I felt in some weird ironic way he needed me. Little did I know that this entire episode we were about to go through was to become what I needed in my life.
Amidst all those thoughts, we made some small talk and chomped down on some of the notoriously terrible hospital food for dinner. With our stomachs filled, I turned on the wall-mounted television. I asked Dad which sport he wanted to watch and we settled in for the night.
It was the first night of a journey that would change both of our lives.