From the Heart of a Family MemberMelissa C. Palmer, LCSW ACHP-SW APHSW-C JD Feb 15, 2022
On December 24, we learned my dad needed cardiac surgery. Not just any surgery, but a triple bypass. His 90% occlusion in three arteries stymied my family; my dad is healthy, does not drink or smoke, exercises regularly, and plans to live to be 100 like many of his ancestors. We heard the term “widow-maker” from more than a few medical providers, and his cardiologist told him he was lucky he hadn’t had a heart attack. His PA in the primary care office missed the mark in August and misdiagnosed his condition as GERD, but thankfully my mom advocated for a cardiology appointment.
After his angiogram, the cardiologist wanted to take my dad into surgery immediately, but he asked to spend Christmas with my family; dad agreed to go into the hospital on the 27th. Because of COVID restrictions, my mom was the only one allowed in the room with my dad. My sister and her family were not invited go to the hospital as support due to their choice to not get vaccinated. My large extended family kept connected via our text chain we use for communications.
The surgery went well at first, but as my mom prepared to say goodnight to my dad and drive home, the surgeon came in to the waiting room and frantically announced “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, he is bleeding and we don’t know what’s wrong, we have to bring him back to the OR” and left. My usually unflappable mother who was trained as a nurse became panicked and we received a text “There has been a complication with the surgery and they have to go back in. I am so scared”. I called my mom and she was sobbing uncontrollably, alone, in the ICU waiting area. We talked and she calmed a bit, and I promised to find out what was happening.
In my mind at that moment, I was chiding myself for not traveling to New England to be with my mom during dad’s surgery. But living 2000 miles away, just starting a new job, and being sick with the flu over the holidays all precluded a trip even if I had planned to be on the East Coast. I felt helpless that I could not do more than serve as air traffic control for the family and be an advocate for my mom by text and phone. I was even more worried that my dad was actually going to die and my mom would be alone.
My years of working with families like my own kicked in, and I called my aunt and uncle to make the 2- hour drive from Cape Cod to be with my mom. Then I called the charge nurse on my dad’s floor. She explained calmly that one of the grafts had not fully been fully cauterized and was leaking. Although it could be life threatening, it was reparable, and the OR was being prepped and the team was en route to the hospital. She agreed to allow an exception for my aunt and uncle (fully vaccinated) to join my mom in the waiting area, and would check in on mom in the meantime. I asked if social work or spiritual care was available, but the hospital did not provide that 24-hour service.
The charge nurse ended up spending an hour or so talking with my mom, holding her hand and comforting her; things I wished I could have done as a family member but could not. Having a compassionate person explain what was going on and that my dad would most likely be okay meant the world to my mom. Although she was left with residual trauma from the interaction with the surgeon, she felt solace and relief from the clear communication from the nursing team.
My dad survived the second surgery, was able to discharge home with my mom, and is recovering well. Although he was unaware of the trauma surrounding his surgeries, he is grateful to have a tuned-up heart and the hope of eventually returning to his prior active life. As for my mom, she is grateful to the nurses who took the time to reach out and provide her the care she needed.
This article is about nursing interventions in the ICU to reduce stress for seriously ill patients and their families:
Lebel, V., & Charette, S. (2021). Nursing Interventions to Reduce Stress in Families of Critical Care Patients: An Integrative Review. Critical Care Nurse, 41(1), 32-44.