This weekend we had a couple of oxygen mishaps, one funny and two decidedly not so. The funny oxygen mishap was me sitting on a spare oxygen tank in the back seat of the car, depressing the lever and getting goosed by a strong “whoosh!” of cold air. B and Mama J and I got a good laugh over that, once we were all done being startled.
At the dinner table on Friday night, though, Mama J wanted to tell B and me about her “oxygen [mis] adventure” from the night before. At some point, she got up in the night to use the restroom and soon realized she could not feel the canula in her nose. Turning on the light, she saw that the green oxygen tubing was not in the bathroom with her, so she headed to the bedroom only to find it coiled up on the floor. She did not remember how or when she had dislodged it, but it seemed likely that it had been that way for a couple of hours, most probably from when she had gotten up earlier in the night. She said it had never happened before — sure, sometimes she woke up with the right canula piece in her left nostril and the left one up against her cheek, but never in the 17 or 18 years she’s been on oxygen could she remember it being completely dislodged in the night.
Most people labor under the misconception that oxygen is used to help people breathe. This is not the case. People who are on oxygen typically have scarring and inflammation in their lungs that means the oxygen cannot be transported from their lungs to the bloodstream, where it flows to vital body parts like heart and brain. Mom can tell, for example, if a portable tank has run low because she starts to get lightheaded and woozy. I do not know how long she could survive if her oxygen supply was cut off, but it seems likely that dangerous effects would begin to happen fairly quickly (once when she lived in Missouri, for example, she had a problem with the water bottle on her concentrator — the water helps keep her nasal passages moist, as oxygen is quite drying — that caused her oxygen saturation level to plummet into the high 40 percent range. She knew something was wrong because she wasn’t feeling well and was starting to notice her fingers and toes were blue.)
Then, yesterday evening while B and I were at the gym, I heard a phone ring in the cubbies where we put our gear while we’re working out. It was one of those times when you know intuitively something is wrong, and I sprinted across the gym to grab the phone. I saw that it was Mom and that she had called my phone, too. I called her back immediately, and she said, “Please come here. I need help.” I didn’t ask any questions, just grabbed B and off we went. As we drove down Jefferson Highway, we saw an ambulance pull out from the fire station on the corner, and we both let out an audible sigh of relief when we saw it go in the opposite direction. We got to Mama J’s apartment in just three minutes … funny the details you remember, even under duress.
She was sitting in the recliner, slumped forward. She said, “I’m not getting any oxygen.” She was feeling a little bad, she said, and so she had taken some morphine, but that wasn’t helping. Checking her oxygen sats, she realized they were in the 70s (90 percent and above is ideal), but didn’t have enough strength to rectify the issue.
It didn’t take long for us to recognize that something was wrong with her hose, and no oxygen was flowing from the concentrator. We quickly hooked her up to a portable tank and her sats rapidly got back up into the 90s while we connected a new water bottle and hose to the concentrator, checked to make sure it was working, and got her settled with a new canula.
What had happened? Had her hose gotten pinched off somewhere or punctured from being dragged across the house a zillion times? And more to the point, we now had had not one, but two life-threatening incidents in less than 48 hours.
At our post-church Valentine’s Day brunch yesterday, I noticed Mama J’s hands were shaking so much (this is from both old age and a side effect from the many medications she is on) that she had to use a spoon to eat her meal. Without a word, I reached over and cut her food for her. And one day as we were getting ready to go out, she was having difficulty buttoning her jacket. “I can’t fasten buttons any more,” she told me. “I can’t write. I can’t cut my food. I’m falling apart.”
When does the care we are giving her simply become not enough? She wants to be as independent as she can, yet every day I see signs that this, too, is being taken from her — not just her ability to fasten buttons and sign her name. My own oxygen-rich brain tells me what is to come, and probably sooner than later, while my heart thumps hard in my chest, calling out “Too soon. Too soon. Too soon.”
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