This post has been a long time coming. It’s taken me a while to not only figure out what to say, but to gain enough distance to say it.
On November 9th, an aneurysm burst in my brother’s brain. Sixty percent of the time, that’s instantly fatal. My brother had a headache.
It was a bad headache – so much so that he doesn’t remember much of the next twenty-four hours. But he got home from work and slept for much of that time and, once he woke up on Tuesday night, he called his workplace and they told him he’d refused to go in the ambulance (he vaguely remembered sitting on a guerney) and that, despite their best efforts, he insisted on driving himself home (my brother is a big man—I understand their reluctance to forcibly taking the keys from him).
When he emailed the family Tuesday night (the 10th), my sister and I both strongly encouraged him to go to the doctor Wednesday morning. Okay, we yelled at him to do so.
Long story short, he ended up in the emergency room of the local hospital, the staff of which knew immediately what had happened. They didn’t have the facilities to deal with an aneurysm that was now bleeding into the brain and had been for nearly thirty-six hours. By ambulance they sent him to a larger hospital where, after getting his blood pressure under control, they inserted a platinum coil into the aneurysm (going in through the groin) and plugged it.
That procedure was a success. Unfortunately, he had a hemorrhagic stroke a half an hour after he came out of recovery. Those types of strokes are also usually fatal—immediately. The brain swelled, they rushed him into surgery again and, the upshot was, they removed a large (nearly a third) of his skull in order to 1) drain the blood and 2) allow the brain room.
Yes, he survived the stroke as well. He’s batting two for two. I didn’t need to look far for a Christmas Miracle this year.
In those early days, traveling down to see him, to consult with nurses and doctors, I didn’t have much time to think. My brother isn’t married and has no children. He lives alone and his circle of friends are mostly his co-workers. He lives two and a half hours away from me, three and a half hours from my parents. Close enough to make the round trip in a single day. I drove it once a week (sometimes twice) and made decisions as his health care proxy—decisions that often needed to be made in moments with little time to think.
Some decisions I made with my parents’ input, but many I made on my own. I signed the paper that let them take his skull off. I signed the paper that let them put it back once the swelling went down. I signed the paper that put a tracheostomy in his throat and the paper that moved him from the hospital to an acute rehab facility. I signed them all.
I hold my brother’s life in my hands. I have avoided thinking about the responsibility, but responsibility has a way of lurking in the background, waiting for a crack, a small vulnerability it can exploit. Once that crack forms, all the guilt, second-guessing, and endless replaying of events pours into one’s soul and burdens one’s shoulders.
For me, that crack formed a week and a half before Christmas. There was no bed for him in any facility anywhere in New York State. He had to be transferred to a facility in Scranton, Pennsylvania – a full hour further away. I hung up the phone after giving permission and cried for over an hour. I told my husband I thought I needed therapy because I was losing my grip. His solution? He called a friend of mine who didn’t even think twice. She took the next day off from work and came over to help me bake Christmas cookies. We had a great day talking things out and she helped me gain perspective again, reordering some of my priorities and helping me to see I wasn’t a bad sister for making the decisions I had.
Is it any wonder I love the man? He’s been my rock, in more ways than I can count.
Now here I stand, on the first day of the New Year, with many more decisions to be made. My brother never made out a will, never appointed anyone to act as Power of Attorney should he need one. If you’re reading this and you haven’t? MAKE THAT YOUR PRIMARY NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION. Because his cognitive functions are impaired, his neurologist has declared him unable to sign such documents now. That means we have to get a court-appointed guardian for him so we can do simple things, like pay his bills.
And yes, my husband and I worked with an attorney last year and filed our wills. The lawyer also strongly suggested designating POA’s and Health Care Proxies at the same time. We took his advice. If both of us are incapacitated, there are those with the power to take over our financials. I also made up a “Where Things Are” list and gave copies to all the parties involved. Our bank accounts, our credit cards, our debts and our savings are all listed so they don’t have to dig and do too much in the way of financial forensics. MAKE A LIST LIKE THAT AS YOUR SECOND NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION. The peace of mind is worth it.
My brother had neither of those. The stress and amount of work we’re doing to handle this is overwhelming at times. DETERMINING A SUPPORT SYSTEM FOR YOURSELF SHOULD BE YOUR THIRD RESOLUTION. I’m still finding mine. My husband is first, my girlfriend and her husband are my backups. I’m working on expanding that circle this year (sharing breakdowns isn’t easy for me. I’m the one everyone vents to – I don’t do the venting).
The snow has finally arrived this winter. Right now we’re getting that big, fluffy Christmas snow that turns the world into a beautiful wonderland of white. I am grateful it held off as long as it did – it made the traveling I had to do in December that much safer by its absence. Today I will enjoy it – for that’s my biggest New Year’s Resolution: Enjoy the moments, big or small, because you never know when an aneurysm is going to burst in your brother’s brain and change your life completely.