The Fragility of Life and Lung: My Dad's Severe Pneumonia Story

I am not the kind of person who wants to forget trauma and suffering. Rather, I want to cherish it. I want to remember that life is fragile no matter my effort to prevent another cancer -- no matter my dad's effort to stay active, healthy and strong.
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The first message arrived midday on a Sunday, picking up the latest in the long paper and electronic trail that chronicles our family's health.

Mom, Jan. 4, 12:49 p.m.: Yesterday morning Dad woke up very sick. He has a terrible cough.
Mom, Jan. 5, 2:52 p.m.: Dad has the flu.
Mom, Jan. 6, 3:40 p.m.: Doc said Dad has to get down fluid. He spit up water twice. If he can't, I have to take him to an urgent care clinic. Don't come home! This is highly contagious.
Dad, Jan. 7, 2:15 p.m.: I will be visiting the doctor again today. I had a very bad night last night and I am very weak. You must stay away from the house.

When I was 4 years old, my dad lived on red meat and his total cholesterol reached 300. His doctor began him on Lipitor -- a cholesterol-reducing medication -- and told him he must change his lifestyle through diet and exercise or else he'd have a heart attack.

When my dad played music with his band on Saturday nights, my mom would take my older brother, JD, and me to Pizza Hut. This was our only chance to eat pizza. My dad quit eating most everything besides poultry and broccoli. My dad hasn't eaten steak in 27 years.

Mom, Jan. 7, 4:40 p.m.: Dad lost 6 lbs from not eating. He keeps wanting to go to the hospital. Yesterday the doc told him he didn't need it.
Me, Jan. 7, 5:00 p.m.: Holy crap. I've never seen him want to be admitted to a hospital before.
Dad, Jan. 7, 6:11 p.m.: The doctor has added a strong antibiotic to calm the cough. I hope that it works. She was confident that it would work. I also had a chest X-ray to determine if I had pneumonia.
Dad, Jan. 8, 9:02 a.m.: The X-ray led to a pneumonia diagnosis.
JD, Jan. 8, 9:12 a.m.: Man this is scary. Anything we can do?

After being diagnosed with high cholesterol, my dad began walking every day outside unless it was raining or freezing, or unless he was severely ill. He bought a treadmill for those occasions. His music source changed, though a decade behind the times, beginning with the Walkman audio cassette player. JD handed down his eight-gigabyte iPod Nano and my dad learned how to import songs but not how to remove them. He claims he doesn't mind listening to "Chicken Fried" for the thousandth time.

JD and I bought him a Polar watch to track his steps. My dad, the most disciplined man I ever met, used this technology to steadily increase his walk from four to six miles over two years. At this pace he'll walk almost half a marathon a day by the time he's 75 years old.

Mom, Jan. 8, 1:49 p.m.: Dad is walking around making noises, saying something that sounds like, "yeah, yeah, yeah." He is moaning loudly.
Me, Jan. 8, 1:50 p.m.: It is scary how ill he sounds but his doc is hopefully on top of things.
Mom, Jan. 8, 2:09 p.m.: He keeps shouting now. I don't know what to do.
Me, Jan. 8, 2:17 p.m.: He'll be fine. Don't worry. Please try to calm down, you're just getting yourself all worked up.
Mom, Jan. 8, 4:17 p.m.: He started saying that his chest really hurt. Now I'm going to get his Boost. He didn't eat lunch and says that he won't eat dinner. I hope he drinks this.
Me, Jan. 8, 6:08 p.m.: Chest pain is a normal symptom according to WebMD. Please stop, you're making yourself sick.

My dad still uses a Rolodex, and I don't expect JD will convince him to switch to the now decade-old Gmail for his contacts. He also tracks his health with paper and pen, amassing paper mountains, years and years of cholesterol and other health readings, even though they never exceed the normal range, all because the doctor he had for 30 years told him to do it once. Until his doctor says "stop tracking cholesterol," or "go to the hospital," he won't.

Mom, Jan. 8, 6:00 p.m.: Dad now says his chest hurts even when he is not coughing. And now he won't go to the hospital.
Mom, Jan. 8, 6:20 p.m.: Dad isn't asleep. His chest hurts, his neck hurts, and he now has a fever.
Mom, Jan. 8, 11:28 p.m.: Every time he complained about pain, I told him to go to the hospital. Whenever he said that he couldn't stand it, I told him the same thing. He said maybe tomorrow.
Me, Jan. 8, 11:30 p.m.: I'm off work tomorrow. I'm coming home. Don't try to tell me not to, it will do no good. I'll take Dad wherever he needs to go. He'll be fine tonight. Goodnight.
Mom, Jan. 9, 9:19 a.m.: I have to get dressed. Doc called and told him to go immediately to urgent care. He can't breathe now.

"I don't have long to talk," my dad said on the phone, "Because I get out of breath. Send Mom the address of the urgent care."

I met my parents at the wrong urgent care, ordered my mom to the backseat, started my phone's navigation towards the correct urgent care, and stomped the pedal. My dad's eyes looked like he'd just consumed a venti dark roast belying four days of sleep deprivation. He took 60 breaths a minute into the tiny portion of his lungs that didn't crackle with fluid. I'd never seen someone so sick.

At first, I used soft reason with JD.

Me, Jan. 9, 11:02 a.m.: Mom thinks you should come now. I don't know, but I can't say that is a bad idea.
Me, Jan. 9, 11:13 a.m.: I asked Doc if you need to come right now, he said, "I don't think he's at that point yet. I think he's going to get better. But he's a pretty sick guy and it wouldn't hurt."
Me, Jan. 9, 11:25 a.m.: I'm trying to analyze whether this is immediate or not. I do not know.

Finally, I was direct.

Me, Jan. 9, 11:30 a.m.: I don't think Dad will die today. Dad thought he would. His pain is a constant 8 out of 10, uncontrollable with every breath.

JD left his house immediately.

Urgent care stabilized him and ordered an ambulance to take him to the hospital emergency room where the nurse connected him to the BiPAP ventilation system. His lungs wouldn't stop crackling. He wouldn't stop moaning.

When it was time for his usual afternoon pill regimen, which the hospital temporarily halted, he wouldn't stop yelling, "Lipitooooooooor," the final vowels drawn out, the words reaching several pitches. Despite his terror, his mind missed nothing regarding the chronic diseases he dedicated his life to managing.

When I was 19, I awoke from an afternoon nap and found my mom and dad asleep next to me. From across the room JD smirked and pointed at my dad's head tipped back on the rocker, tongue out. My family had quit working, pausing their lives during my bone marrow transplant to treat my second cancer, to be with me. Each day we napped together. They filled my loneliness and watched me suffer.

"I'd offer to stay with Dad tonight, but I can see you're not leaving him," JD said.

I wouldn't leave. My superhero and best friend looked so fragile. I waited for him to pull his iPod out of his pocket and walk out of the ER, as if this was all a misunderstanding because he missed his morning six-miler. Instead the ventilatory assist machine forced air into my dad's lungs, reduced pressure so he could exhale, and repeated, the robot of death knocking at his doorstep.

I pulled the chair adjacent to his bed, close enough to touch his hand in comfort.

I drifted off in between moans and more shouts of "Lipitooooooooor." Sometimes, I woke to beg him to forget his meds for just this one day. Sometimes, to understand the terror in his blank stare. My eyes streamed tears for just the third time in 14 years, as uncontrollable as the pain when he breathed.

Early the next morning JD returned to the hospital. Too scared and sick to make eye contact, my dad's bright, blue, teary eyes focused between us. He whispered. We got closer. But he was conversing with someone else. "Mom, I'm not ready to go to the other siiiiiiiiide." I looked up at the monitor expecting question marks and flatlines, and then I turned to where my dad was looking, expecting to see my translucent grandmother who passed before I could remember her.

I only felt JD's eyes on mine. "You're not going to the other side, yet," we said, pulling him back to ours.

I am not the kind of person who wants to forget trauma and suffering. Rather, I want to cherish it. I want to remember that life is fragile no matter my effort to prevent another cancer -- no matter my dad's effort to stay active, healthy and strong. Within days, severe necrotizing and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus pneumonia, and pneumothoraces and collapsed lungs with holes in them, nearly took my 69-year-old father with an obsessive attention to health.

He will get out of the hospital and return to his Lipitor and long walks, handwriting his health and history in notebooks. Just not yet.

And he agreed to have steak on his 70th birthday.

Feel free to wish my dad a speedy recovery by posting a comment on my blog.

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