This past Tuesday, March 6, was the one-year anniversary of my returning home from my four-month hospital stay. What makes the date so important is that my insurance company tried very hard to have me sent to a nursing home after I'd been at the rehab hospital for two months. I was progressing with occupational and physical rehab, I was attempting to wean off the vent, and I was learning how to speak with the trach and ventilator. I was gaining weight -- up to 92 pounds from my low of 75 when I entered the ICU in November 2005.
Had the insurance company gotten it's way, I would have gone to the one nursing home in the entire Twin Cities they considered "in network" and accepting of vent-dependent clients. And I firmly believe that would have led to my death -- quite possibly in this past year.
From the beginning of my medical crisis, my parents and I had talked about how we would try our best to adapt to my changing needs -- the increased need for skilled assistance, the steep learning curve for the vent, trach and feeding tube, the medical bills threatening their financial security as well as mine. The insurance company assigned me a case worker. The hospital social workers helped us begin to navigate the system for state and federal aid. I signed over the title of my van to my folks, an act that terrified me because of how necessary and tenuous being asset-less appeared to my survival. (It's back in my name now, but at the time it was suggested as necessary.)
While I was busy at the rehab center with the minutiae of movement and breath, my parents were working to secure a home health agency and nursing care with state funding approval. Then, one morning, my Mom got a call from that insurance company case worker.
"I've got good news!" she said. "We're moving Kay to a nursing home that's closer to you so you won't have to drive so far to see her! The home is sending someone to assess Kay today!"
This is a person who knew we were working hard to get nursing coverage for me at home. And I don't know how long the insurance company had been planning to drop this bomb, but because I didn't have a telephone in my room (or, really, the ability to speak into it), she was basically telling my Mom the bomb was about to be dropped on me. My parents say they raced to the hospital -- a 90-minute drive -- to keep it from looking like they had decided to ambush and abandon me.
When I was in ICU at first, I was intubated with the breathing tube in my mouth and down my throat. For various reasons, including the Thanksgiving holiday and some scheduling around it, I was intubated for about three weeks and conscious for all but the first couple days before surgery to install the trach at my neck. Intubation by mouth is very painful on the jaw and tender throat. And frightening. During that time -- November 2005 -- I shifted emotionally from wishing I could die and stop the misery, being overwhelmed by the small kindnesses of people and the company of friends and family, and compulsively wondering if this was leading to the end. I was sure it was not, despite my on-and-off despair. I've had pneumonias that felt very deadly and like I might be rattling my way toward death, but this felt like a living transition that I would survive.
And yet, three months later, after the hardest-working, most character-building time of my life, when my parents rushed to my room at the rehab hospital to tell me the insurance company was planning on sending me to a nursing home, my absolute first private thought was, "So this is going to kill me after all."
That's not just drama. I've made a study of how institutionalization leads to the abuse and death of disabled (and elderly) folks -- especially those using ventilators. Like we feminists follow the state of reproductive choice, I have followed the freedoms and lack of them for disabled people in institutions. Abuse and death in institutions has been a theme, along with the basic immorality of warehousing people, in small activist publications like Mouth and Ragged Edge for decades.
As details about this particular facility I was slated to enter became known, it became clear to everyone I talked to at the rehab hospital that being there would likely endanger my health and most definitely halt and reverse specifics of the work I'd done in physical therapy.
As it happened, the one person at that nursing home responsible for assessing incoming inmates was away on a holiday in the tropics and did not visit me that day the insurance company woman said he would. My parents were able to break the news to me, and there would be a weekend reprieve. We learned more about the home in that time -- this home that none of the doctors, nurses, therapists, or RTs that I quizzed at the rehab hospital had any familiarity with. They couldn't recall sending any other patient there, though that was possibly due to a name change, I don't know.
Here are some things I learned about this nursing home I narrowly escaped being sent to, from my parents' on-site tour and my doctors' communication with the facility:
There was a vent wing with about a dozen people there using ventilators to breathe. When my parents visited in mid-afternoon, all these people that they saw through open doors were stuck in their beds.This was the only "in network" option my insurance company was giving me. Without home nursing assistance yet in place, the rehab hospital would not allow me to go home, but the insurance company expected this place would be suitable. My parents were so afraid for my safety and health that they were planning to take turns sleeping in the nursing home room with me, fighting whatever policies might prevent even that. The home care agency we were working with was racing to hire nurses, but expected it would take three weeks to a month.
I was slated for the last room at the end of the hall, as far as you can get from supervision and assistance.
There was no internet access anywhere available to inmates. And no TVs in the rooms. Patients were expected to provide their own if they wanted something to do while immobile in their beds. I suppose this is true of most nursing homes? I don't know.
There was a dining room, but when my Mom asked the home rep if I would be eating in it, she was told it was doubtful. Because of the vent, the woman said, unless I had someone of my own to assist me, I would be staying in my room for meals, and likely for everything else.
Much of the population was warehoused homeless people, probably mentally ill as well as formerly indigent, whom no other place would accept. My parents deduced that a young woman (okay, middle-aged) who cannot walk and is stuck in bed on a ventilator at the end of a long hallway without the power of speech might be vulnerable to physical attacks from mobile, minimally-supervised people with mental issues of their own.
There were RTs (respiratory therapists) on staff but all of them were off-duty every day from 3 p.m. until the next morning. (With my body adjusting to the trach and vent at that time, I was experiencing frequent "mucus plugs" that completely blocked off my airway and required immediate suction relief -- all of these events occurred for me at rehab during evening and night times. More than a dozen times I experienced these plugs, which often hit without notice. Once, I blacked out completely while the RT worked to clear my airway -- and this occurred with a night-duty RT who came immediately to my vent alarm from a desk just a few yards from my bed.*)
The ventilator I would be required to use would not allow for any weaning and would not be portable on my scooter.
I might not be allowed to use my own scooter, which in any case, would be of limited utility without a portable vent.
There was no physical therapy available to help me maintain or increase my strength, which I'd been working on daily to rebuild.
It did take a month to get the nurses for home care -- and even then, only partial coverage. In the meantime my respiratory health took a little dip, likely because I was crying quite a bit from all this. Concerned, the rehab hospital doctors would not release me to the nursing home, the assessment dude never showed up, and one day, quite suddenly, the insurance company called the social worker and completely relented with the institutionalization plan. I'm sure this is because I had people: my parents to speak for me when I literally could not and wouldn't have had the energy or heart anyway, doctors and RTs who I was awake and conscious enough to build a relationship with so that they perhaps fought a little harder for me in a battle they faced with insurance companies daily. I had resources to keep me from that nursing home I believe would have caused my death. Other people do not.
This one-year anniversary reminds me of how very afraid I was to leave the hospital and the trained professionals behind for my parents' newly-learned suctioning skills and nurses we newbies would have to train. I'm home and happy, though unemployed and baffled as to how anyone who has to manage full-time assistance does anything else useful with their time. I'm hoping to figure that out in the coming year. This is a bittersweet anniversary to celebrate when I understand how very very lucky I am, and how the story is much different for other people who do end up in nursing homes and other institutions.
* Because of medication, adjustment to the vent, and a lowered cuff that prevents sudden total blockage, plugs are not an emergency I have had for about ten months now. This is the result of a lot of hard work and vigilance on my part. Conscious, alert, and in charge of my own health care here at home, I can weigh all the factors and adjust medication that prevents plugs, refuse meds if I don't need or want them, ask for suction, request more or less water in my cuff -- all without being institutionally "noncompliant" or having something decided without my input or consent. Until I was able to verbally express these wishes, my written communication was respected and "heard" by people who my family and I were able to assure cared about my preferences.
Cross-posted at my blog, The Gimp Parade