Caring for a Father After Heart Surgery

A daughter shares how caring for her diabetic father following his heart surgery strengthened her faith and calmed her fears.

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- Posted on May 22, 2015

Caring for a Father After Heart Surgery

“You okay, Dad?”

“Fine.”

Quiet hung in the air between us, a quietness that was so familiar. I glanced at the living room clock: 7:00 p.m. “Isn’t it almost time?”

“Nope. Nine o’clock,” he said. Dad pulled the lever up on his recliner, turned on his favorite reality show and that was that.

Dad was a man of few words. Always had been. Not that I was a big talker myself. Rarely did we say “I love you” to each other. It was simply under stood—there was no doubt about it. Conversation just didn’t come easy for either of us.

READ MORE: AN OLYMPIAN'S BATTLE WITH DIABETES

Five days earlier I’d been watching the clock too, sitting with my family in the waiting room of the hospital while Dad underwent heart-valve surgery. The hours crawled by. We reminisced about the summers we’d spent in Maryland on his 32-foot boat. The way he’d taught me how to steer and dock. And how, despite his 35 years of grueling, rotating shift work, he always made sure he had time with “his girls,” as he called my two sisters, my mom and me.

Dad was big on his faith, on helping anyone in need, on boating, on cracking a one-liner, but mostly he was a listener. A man who showed his love not by declaring it but by providing for us.

The hospital clock had hit the six-hour mark. Then seven. No word from the operating room. All I could think was the worst. Dad had Type 2 diabetes. Did that complicate things? I should’ve told him more often how much he meant to me, should’ve tried to talk to him, made an effort to learn more about who he really was, his life story. Maybe all those moments of quiet between us could have been conversations if only I’d just tried harder.

Finally, the surgeon entered through the double doors of the waiting room. “He’s under sedation, but he’s doing well,” he said. “Come in and see him.”

Dad was pale, his salt-and-pepper hair tousled. Tubing went every which way. The heart monitor echoed a slow, steady rhythm. “He could be here a week or two,” a nurse said. “Sometimes recovery takes a while.” She explained that they’d changed his diabetes medication from pills to insulin injections. It was longer lasting for someone with heart issues.

Five days later, Dad’s color came back and his vitals were strong. Thank you, Lord, for bringing him through this. Whatever you need me to do to help him stay well, I’ll do it. Anything. Mom, my sisters and I decided we’d take turns looking after him at home.

“I’ll take the night shift,” I said, since my husband, Kevin, and I lived just a few minutes away. Tonight was my first time on duty. Mom was resting. All I had to do was make sure Dad took his meds and gave himself an insulin injection. No sweat.

“Hey, Tam,” Dad said during a commercial break in his show.

“Yeah, Dad?”

“Would you mind giving me my insulin shot? At least until I can move around a little better?”

I froze. What?

“Dad...I don’t think I can.” I glanced at the insulin needle on the end table, wrapped neatly in its package. It looked more like a harpoon. “You can’t do it yourself?” I said, my voice thick with apprehension.

“Not yet.”

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All my life, needles had freaked me out. Everyone knew that. I’d never gotten over my childish fear of shots. The idea of giving one scared me even more. I couldn’t do it. Yet Dad’s weakened voice, seeing him resting in that recliner...it made me realize just how vulnerable he was.

A bigger fear came rising up inside me: Someday Dad wouldn’t be here. As much as we didn’t have deep conversations, I couldn’t imagine my life without him. I had to be there for him now, in any way, just as my prayer had promised. I had to do this.

The clock ticked closer to nine.

Before Dad’s shot, I needed to change his compression stockings, to prevent swelling in his legs. I was grateful for the temporary reprieve. “Bet you never thought you’d be putting panty hose on me!” he said, laughing weakly.

“Nope. That’s for sure!” I said.

Silence.

Finally, Dad said, “What are you afraid of? You’ll do fine. Just be sure to empty the vial.” He gazed up at me with his deep brown eyes, the same eyes that had comforted me when I was a little girl, and nodded. It may have been unspoken, but it was as if he knew I was afraid of more than needles. I was afraid of hurting him. And, deep down, of losing him.

I got the insulin from the refrigerator and gave Dad his blood-test kit. He pricked his finger to test his sugar level. “Let’s do this,” he said. I swabbed his upper arm with a sterile wipe, then dried my sweaty palms. Dad handed me the needle.

“Relax,” he said.

“I’m afraid I’ll do something wrong,” I said.

“Trust me,” he said. “Piece of cake.”

“Okay.” I let out a deep breath. “Are you ready?”

“Ready, Nurse Tammy.”

I wanted to squeeze my eyes closed like I did when I got a shot, but I didn’t dare. I picked a spot. Aimed. Jabbed. Dad didn’t even flinch. It seemed like an eternity for the vial to empty into his arm. Finally it was over.

“I did it!” I said, breathing again.

“It was worse for you than it was for me,” Dad said.

I felt myself tremble. Could I do this night after night?

READ MORE: A MOTHER, HER SON AND TYPE 1 DIABETES

Seven o’clock the next evening, Dad clicked on his favorite reality show again. “You know, I think you and Kevin would enjoy this,” he said.

“It’s pretty entertaining,” I said. “What a cast of characters!”

“Let me tell you who I think is getting voted off,” he said, explaining the competition.

This time the hours flew by. I did the injection quickly during a commercial break so we could go right back to watching the show.

“You were right!” I told him when a cast member got the boot.

“I knew it,” he said. We kept on talking—about the show, about other things.

It was as if getting closer to Dad to administer his shot had brought us closer on another level. It had bonded us in a new way.

One night after Mom went to bed I dug out a box of old family photographs—boating pictures from the eighties.

“Look, Dad!” I said. “Here’s one of you on that trip to Rehoboth when you battled the waves down Indian River in your yellow raincoat.” He’d reminded me of Gorton’s salty fisherman.

“That was one of the scariest trips we ever took,” he said.

“Really?” I asked. “You never blinked an eye. You just told us kids to relax down below in the cabin.”

“We were on a ten-foot wave,” he said. “I had to make the decision to completely turn the boat around before landing back down. I’ve never prayed so hard.”

My dad, afraid? I couldn’t imagine it. He was always a rock!

“I think sometimes when we’re afraid, it’s so God can show us what we’re really capable of. Like jabbing someone with a needle,” he said. Then he shot me a wink.

“Dad!” We both cracked up.

A couple of weeks later, Dad informed me, “I won’t need you to give me shots anymore. I’m strong enough to do it myself now.”

I reached over and gave him a hug. I didn’t say anything.

Quietness that was so familiar, yet this time it felt right. Sometimes just being together can be a conversation too.

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