Posts Tagged ‘COPD’

The Thinker

Scared to death

Did you see the video of Donald Trump’s hair (or more accurately his lack of it)? It looks like on February 6th Trump had a really bad hair day. The camera caught these moments when he was ascending into Air Force One. Trump of course goes through great length to hide his thinning hair. While only his hairstylist knows some of his secrets (and I’m not sure he has one), it looks like he’s getting by by letting his sideburns grow to great lengths and sweeping them back.

Frankly it looks stupid. It’s rumored that Trump has had scalp reduction surgery, presumably to pull back and make the most what he has left of his hair. It’s obviously dyed and lacquered with something to make it thicker than it is. It’s also obvious that Trump wears dentures. No one has quite that perfect teeth. But when you are 71 all you can do is make the best of what you’ve got or in Trump’s case, fake it … bigly. Trump wants to pretend he’s much younger than he is and full of vigor, but if anything he looks older than his age.

Since two posts ago I turned 61. I’m doing relatively well hair-wise, at least compared to my younger brother. But like Trump I have a lot less of it on the top of my head and what’s left is a lot thinner as well. My former hairstylist assured me I would always have a full head of hair, but I doubt it. In the sun it’s pretty obvious it’s going. Like it or not I too am aging. And while like Trump I don’t particularly want to look older than my age and would prefer to look younger than my age, I don’t intend to fake it.

Still, Trump and I share one undeniable fact: were both aging and it’s only going to get worse. I have no illusions that I’m handsome enough to attract some younger babe. Unlike a lot of the men in the news these days I’m not in the mood to try. I like the woman I married 32 years ago, faults and all. She loves me. If I were to hitch up with some younger babe I’d never really believe she loves me anyhow.

I can’t read Melania Trump but I really doubt she loves her husband. She now has more reason not to love him if these Stormy Daniels rumors are true. Even if not true, she surely knew she was marrying a man with issues and infidelities. My guess is Melania knew poverty as a child, or enough discomfort that she wanted to be kept warm and in opulence for the rest of her life. At least she got that with Trump. If he dumped her like he did with his other wives there would be a fat alimony and a big bonus: not having to endure her husband anymore.

Aside from 46 chromosomes, humans share one important thing: we are all destined to die. One way to measure a person is to see how they respond to this knowledge. I try not to think about it too much but I live in a strange family. My daughter says she is not death-phobic. She’s converting my wife who is spending her time on YouTube watching the Ask the Mortician channel, and enjoying it. For the last few years my main way with dealing with death is to live robustly. Make every day count and stay engaged. For me life is about living. Death will take care of itself, since it is inescapable.

I do get this much from listening to my wife and daughter: many of us are trained to fear death. It’s not like this in all cultures, Japan for instance. But here in the west we are in the death-denying business. Some take it to crazy lengths, and Donald Trump must be near the top of the list. Trump’s reputed recent physical was crazy. He’s 239 pounds, and was probably holding helium balloons while he was weighed. He also inflated his height to 6’3” so he can technically claim not to be obese. His doctor, the White House physician, said he was in fabulous health. But the doctor was clearly lying. You don’t need to be a doctor to see it for yourself. Trump looks terrible, gets no exercise of note, requires statins to keep his cholesterol in check and has a diet that consists of a lot of McDonalds takeout food.

Many religions teach us there is an afterlife which if true is a good reason to not be worried about death. The problem is that most of us in our hearts don’t believe it. We can’t acknowledge to ourselves that we don’t believe it and that feeds a lot of anxiety, anxiety that seems to grow worse as we age. Trump is denying his mortality bigly. So did my mom when she was dying. Her faith was pretty useless to her. She was scared out of her mind.

Only two aunts (one of them in a mental hospital) stand between me and everyone in the generation before me related to me dead. Both my parents are gone, my father most recently two years ago on my birthday. The one aunt who is still of sound mine is taking lots of supplements, is carefully watching her nutrition and is getting lots of exercise. She is the youngest of twelve. All the rest are gone. She reports its sad and scary to see all those you loved die. What are left are mostly children and grandchildren if you are lucky to have them. She’s got the children, but both her husband and daughter are dead and died just weeks apart in misery. Of the three boys, two are married and none produced heirs.

Being a middle child I am likely to see some of my older siblings die before me and they will experience my absence from their lives when I die. That too is part of aging and dying, at least in a large family (I have seven siblings), if you live long enough. In some ways it is better to die sooner so you don’t have to go through that crap.

With six decades to ponder death though I’ve realized a few things. Death does not scare me. I don’t want to die by having my head chopped off with an axe or from a gunshot wound but that’s a logical fear to a particularly horrible way of dying. Having watched two parents die though death is no longer a mystery. It’s natural and it’s a consequence of living. I should no more be afraid of being dead than I should be scared that there was no me before I was conceived.

I am afraid of dying a miserable death like my mother endured. I can and will take sensible precautions to avoid those kinds of death. The major cause of her death was Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. I am taking COQ-10 to make it less likely that this will kill me, although it might. Parkinson’s runs in her family. My father died primarily of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Basically his lungs died before the rest of him. I have a physical in two weeks and on my agenda is to ask my physician how I can avoid COPD. (Obviously I don’t smoke, and neither did my father. This is often where it begins.)

Something’s going to get me though and it will get Donald Trump too. You play the game, you do your best to stack the odds in your favor so you can at least optimally enjoy what time you have left, but a certain amount is left to fate. COPD is not a bad way to go if you have to go. My father was able to stay at home until nearly the very end.

So perhaps watching Ask the Mortician is not a bad idea. Maybe we have such phobias about death because we don’t want to confront our mortality. And yet there is nothing more natural than death. We will all experience dying but I suspect even in dying there is some living there. We will all find out in time if we can get suppress our fear of dying enough to enjoy living. That’s how I intend to go.

I don’t know how Donald Trump will go when his time comes, but I am confident he will fight it, lose like all of us do and maybe for the first time in his life feel humbled by forces outside of his control.

The Thinker

Not a saint, but saintly

When I entered his hospital room, I had this strange feeling of déjà vu.

It was not so surprising. I had been here before, but it was in 2004 when my mother was in intensive care. I even blogged about it. And here it was ten years later and I was back wandering the halls of Holy Cross Hospital, in Silver Spring, Maryland. In September 2004, I was there to witness the shocking decline of my mother. She had congestive heart failure at the time and was delusional.

Ten years later it was my father in a bed at Holy Cross Hospital. At least he wasn’t delusional, as congestive heart failure is not his issue. No, it was simple pneumonia that put my father in the hospital this time, simple except he is almost 88 years old and is suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which is slowly eating away his lungs. I blogged about that just two posts ago. Two posts ago my Dad was healthy, and just about ready to take a cross-country trip on an airplane to see his mentally slipping sister. I worried he’d catch pneumonia but he came back a week ago all upbeat and chipper. I congratulated him for not catching anything and reveled in having him in such high spirits in my living room at his age. My congratulations were premature.

Who knows where he got the infection that caused this pneumonia? The airplane is a likely suspect, as they are known for nasty viruses they carry including, most recently, the Ebola Virus. If so he likely had caught it on the way back east because it took a few days before symptoms appeared. It wasn’t until last night that he finally went into the hospital. It took my sister talking to him on the phone to figure out something major was going on. Words were slurred. Thoughts were expressed incoherently. There was that and that he could barely walk. The paramedics thought he’d be okay overnight. By Monday though he was wheeled by ambulance to Holy Cross Hospital and by evening he was in a room, oxygen tubes up his nose, IVs in his arms and periodic masks placed over his face forcing a vaporous mist of medicine into his lungs. The last thing his diminished lungs needed was to be clogged with more mucus. No wonder: he wasn’t getting enough oxygen and making so little sense.

Last night another sister paid a visit to him in the hospital. She reported he made sense only about half the time. He was confusing dates and facts. And it being pneumonia, he was coughing and eating very little. The good son (me) was elsewhere. I was teaching last night. It was hard to assess these events from afar but I made the calculated decision that my students should not skip class for an emergency visit from me. It worked out last night, but one of these days I feel my luck will run out.

What I did not expect when I saw him this morning was the wispy ghost of a man I found in the hospital bed. He looked half mummified. He was gaunt with a face was so white it was hard to distinguish it from his hair, or what was left of it, which was also snow white. He seemed shriveled.

It was shocking because a week earlier after returning from the west coast I enjoyed a lively conversation with a far different man. He now seemed fundamentally changed, not just a senior citizen, but elderly. No, not elderly, but ancient with skin that was no longer elastic and full of large and reddened age spots over his arms and legs. The image that came to my mind was that of the last days of my mother nine years ago. It was an image that recalled someone not just on the precipice of death, but someone who had teetered off the precipice and had begun the fall. In 2005 my mother looked much like my father did today: ghostly white, and with her dark hair all a sickly greyish white. Given this is at least my father’s third bout with pneumonia, it was hard not to project that maybe his time had come too.

To my great relief, he was at least rested and back to his usual mental sharpness. The more time I spent with him, be more color returned to his pallid face. Still, there was no masking his gauntness or his disinterest in the food in front of him. I even brought brownies. Chocolate is his primary weakness but today he expressed no particular interest in the brownies. Most of his breakfast had been left untouched.

Health care professionals shuffled in and out as did clergy. The first clergy member was actually a Methodist minister, not quite what the spiritual doctor would order for this devout Catholic. A few hours later a priest showed up and prayed with him and gave him a blessing for the sick, which he surely was.

My father could look more ghostly than human but his personality was still there. He likes to hand out complements lavishly and started handing them to me. He is such a gentle and good man, but not all complements he hands out are necessarily correct. He may be shriveled, but I am but a shadow of the man that he is. My father instinctively finds some good in everyone, something I have a hard time doing. He believes we are all kind and loving people by nature, despite obvious indications that we are not. He may not be a saint. I have not seen him perform any miracles. But he is saintly, and a near perfect role model of a human being, even in the hospital with tubes running in and out of him, even with his body a mess and his lungs slowly deteriorating. My father’s essence shines out no matter how bleak the circumstances.

In a few days he will likely be released. There is physical therapy in his future, and something new: a walker with wheels. The physicians are worried he might fall although he has no history of falling. I have not heard that his COPD has reached the stage where he needs supplemental oxygen, but if I were his physician I would order it. It was his incoherence and blue fingernails that cued us into the severity of the problem. It was this and that he could barely make it between his bed and his water closet.

So maybe his 88th birthday party will go on as scheduled on Saturday. We can only wait and see. I do hope his appetite has returned by then. There were signs that it was coming back to him when I left today. And if my stepmother is as perceptive as I expect her to be, the party will end with a birthday cake. I t better have plenty of chocolate in it.

The Thinker

Gasping for breath

Age is catching up with my father. At nearly age 88, his mind is willing but his body is not always capable of keeping up. This was obvious to me when we visited him a few weeks ago. We shuffled off to one of the local dining establishments in his oversize retirement community, and shuffle we did, well to the rear of other pedestrians. My father can no longer run. He can still walk, but he is limited to shuffling. To not find myself bounding ahead of him, I slowed my walk to an unnaturally slow gate. I am hardly moving yet I heard him panting and gasping for breath next to me. He’s not on oxygen but it’s easy to imagine a time not too distant when there are oxygen tubes going up his nostrils and he is carrying an oxygen supply with him wherever he goes.

Dad has COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s a fancy way of saying his lungs are slowly dying and so, by extension is he. For men who make it to his advanced age (and most of his peers have long been planted six feet under) COPD is rife. It’s not hard to find people wheeling oxygen canisters down the hallways at Riderwood. COPD is the third largest cause of death in the United States. It’s hard to say exactly how my father developed it, but there were decades when he spent much of his day coughing, hacking and incessantly clearing his throat. Fortunately, he never smoked, but COPD has a lot in common with smokers’ diseases like emphysema. It destroys or plugs with mucus the linings of the lung where blood and air meet, where oxygen comes in and carbon dioxide gets vented. This means you breathe less deeply, and even if you can breathe more deeply, less oxygen will get into the bloodstream.

Dad walks not just slowly, but is also stooped. He does not require a cane or walker, but those may come in time. He can bound up steps first thing in the morning but he tires easily. He and my stepmother spent a night with us recently. Both had issues going down thirteen steps to our guest room. In my stepmother’s case, it was due to her knee replacement, which lets the knee bear weight but without the agility she is used to. And the joint does hurt. Steps need to have firm handrails and not be too high. In my father’s case, it’s due to shortness of breath. Movement is done slowly when it is done at all.

My father has always been blessed with an unquestioning faith and an ability to accept fate without sinking into depression. He accepts that he has COPD, but until I looked up the details I was unaware that it was progressive and (assuming something else does not kill you first) will literally be the death of him. He takes each day as it comes, but you can tell he is struggling. Some part of his happiness is for show. He has always imparted life lessons and as he nears his nineties he is still providing some. The latest one seems to be to not look too far ahead and to take each day for the blessing that it is.

He doesn’t require a wheelchair at airports but seems to accept that it is a good thing to ask for one. The walks to gates and between concourses are long. And travel he must, at least he feels he has to. His only sibling, a younger sister, is losing her memory. She is currently in assisted living with her husband in northern California. He and my stepmother spent the night with us because they still drive, but not at night, and we live close to the airport. They will navigate the Capital Beltway, but only during non rush hours. And it’s my stepmother who usually does the driving, being six years his junior. They can do things the rest of us can do, but just barely. Every week makes their expansive life look like it will shrink a bit. It is likely not too long before they will give up cars altogether and except for rare and chaperoned trips out, retired life will be lived wholly within Riderwood. At some point, my father is likely to die there, or at a nearby hospital.

So an airline trip to San Francisco, then a commuter flight to the city where his sister is at, is a major logistical challenge. My stepmother is there for an important reason: to keep my father safe. She still has her wits about her and unlike my father is not likely to nod off repeatedly during games of Scrabble. With a sound sleep my father can navigate life. Add the stress of flying across the country, shuttling between airplanes and carrying suitcases and it becomes problematic. Also problematic: the chance of contracting something while traveling. A few years ago while visiting his sister he ended up in the hospital with pneumonia. He arrived home a week later than planned. Even then he was fortunate to have my stepmother, then just his girlfriend, to be there and to make sure he received appropriate care.

I keep my fingers crossed for him. Although not a praying man, I feel the need to pray for him. My father has always been such a gentle soul, with series of caretakers like my mother around to support him when life might cause his to slip on the sidewalk cracks. There are far worse ways to die than from COPD, so perhaps it is something of a blessing. He’s unlikely to lose his mind to dementia like his sister. He is unlikely to find his body a neurological mess like my late mother. He probably won’t have to suffer from chronic pain, like my wife spends much of her life. He deserves to keep his mind intact until the end, and it still is intact, although it seems to be running at a slower clock speed.

Meanwhile, with every labored breath I can’t help but reflect on how much time he has left with us and how much I will miss my gentle role model of a man and a father when he is irretrievably gone from us.


Switch to our mobile site