Dragonfly Publications
Care Tips for Dementia Caregivers

Here is a true-life example of why patient advocacy is important:
One afternoon, my mother, who at the time, because of her advanced Alzheimer’s dementia, was living in a nursing home, suddenly started vomiting large amounts of blood. The nursing home appropriately called a squad and sent her to the nearest hospital. Unfortunately the hospital they sent her to was not the same hospital where she was usually treated.
I was at work, so when the nursing home called me to let me know what happened, it took me about thirty minutes to wrap things up at work and to get to the hospital. When I got to the ER, the receptionist told me mom had arrived and was in treatment bay 1. I walked over to bay 1, a curtained area across from the nurse’s station and inside I heard someone say in a not-so-pleasant voice, “C’mon Grandma- hold still while I get this gown off of you.” Then I heard- “Oh no we are not gonna fight about this Grandma- you are gonna do what I say and we will get along just fine.” I immediately pulled back the curtain and found my mother half dressed in a blood soaked gown, crying and a nurse’ s aide struggling with her to get her out of it. The aide jumped back and seemed stunned by my abrupt entrance.
“What was going on? I asked.
“Grandma here won’t let me help her out of these messy clothes.”
“She is not your grandma,” I said (This woman calling my mother grandma seemed derogatory to me). “She’s my mother and she has dementia,” I said. I walked over to mom who was trembling. “Talking to her that way is scaring her.”
“What way? The aide said, her voice indignant. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “She just won’t do what I tell her to do.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! How could this person be working in an emergency room? You can’t tell me this is the first person with dementia she has ever encountered. I took a deep breath.
“She doesn’t understand what you want her to do. You have to talk to her-slowly- softly and gently,” I said.
The aide looked at me as if I were from another planet. “Well then if you think you can do a better job- I will leave this up to you,” she said and then walked away.
I felt my face heat up with fury. My plans were to report this incompetent aide- and I would do that soon- but right now Mom needed taken care of and right now I was the only one she could count on. I got Mom calmed down, undressed and into a clean gown. Shortly after that a lab tech came in and drew several vials of blood. An hour later, mom was wheeled down to radiology for a CAT scan of her abdomen. After about a two hour wait in the ER, Mom’s lab work came back showing that she was severely anemic and in need of a blood transfusion. They still did not know where she was bleeding from because the CAT scan results were negative. Mom would need admitted to have the transfusion overnight and a GI consult was ordered to find out the source of the bleeding. Six hours went by until finally a bed became available on a general medical floor. It was after midnight by the time I got mom in her room and settled. A medical resident came in and performed a history and physical on her. He said that someone would be in to draw more lab work so they could type and cross match Mom’s blood, so they could order the blood she needed from the blood bank and then they would start the transfusion. He estimated by how low her blood count was (Normal blood count is 14 gm- Mom’s was 5 gm!) she would probably need two units of blood. I asked him when the GI doctor would be in to see her. He said probably not until the morning when he makes his rounds. This took me back a bit. Obviously mom was bleeding from somewhere- enough for her to require two units of blood. Granted she hadn’t vomited blood in the last few hours, but wasn’t it important to find out what was going on? Mom was getting weaker as the hours ticked by. At one o’clock the type and cross match bloodwork was drawn. Hopefully this would get things started.
Three o’clock- no blood transfusion. Four o’clock- no blood transfusion. Finally I went out to the nurse’s station to see what the hold- up was. The ward clerk looked up the lab results and told me they were still “pending.” As soon as the results were back someone would be in to start her transfusion. At six o’clock-the sun came up but still no blood. I went back out to the nurse’s stations where a fresh shift of nurses had just arrived. I told one of them that Mom was in room 1123 and was supposed to get a blood transfusion last night, but still had not and could she look into it. She assured me she would as soon as she got report. I never saw her again.
Mom slept off and on through the night, but now seemed more restless and was having difficulty breathing. I felt for her pulse- it was 130 and thready (weak). She was receiving two liters of oxygen through a nasal cannula, but that wasn’t doing much good as she was totally mouth breathing now. Around nine-o’clock mom’s IVAC beeped because the IV had gone dry. I let it beep hoping that someone would eventually come in and take care of it. Finally a nurse came in and hung a new bag of IV fluids and checked mom’s vitals. Her BP was 60/40.
“Does her blood pressure always run this low?” the nurse asked.
“No-her blood count is low and she was supposed to get a blood transfusion last night. Is the blood ready yet? The nurse flipped through her notes. “Looks like we are still waiting on the type and cross match,” she said.
“They drew that at one o’clock last night- how long does it take to run a goddamn lab test?” I snapped.
The nurse took a step back.
“Look, I’m sorry. I’ve been here all night. No one has so much as brought my mother a glass of water. Can you find out what is going on? She’s bleeding from somewhere and the ER doc ordered a GI consult. Can you find out when the GI doc will be here?”
“I’ll call down to the lab and find out about the blood. I don’t know when the GI doc will be in-sometime this morning I would imagine,” she said and left the room.
I dozed off in the chair next to mom’s bed but then suddenly woke to a severe pain in my neck and the nauseating smell of hospital food. I looked over at Mom. She was sleeping. Noisily breathing with her mouth wide open. I looked over at the IVAC pole-still no blood. I looked at my watch- it was noon. I had had enough.
I marched out to the nurse’s station and asked to speak to the nursing supervisor. I was told she was in a meeting.
“Ok then I want to speak to the medical director,” I said.
“Is there a problem?” the ward clerk asked.
“My mother is in room 1123. She has been in this hospital for nearly twenty-four hours. She is severely anemic-bleeding from somewhere that no one seems to care about. Her pulse is weak. Her blood pressure is low. She was supposed to have a blood transfusion last night- that never happened.”
“Ok-ok, I’ll get her nurse,” the ward clerk said.
Mom’s nurse-another nurse I had never seen before but who was now deemed “Mom’s nurse” appeared at the nurse’s station. I went through my spiel again. She said she would check on everything and let me know. I snapped- that answer might have worked last night but it wasn’t working now.
“Look–I want my mother transferred out of here,” I said. “You people obviously do not know what you are doing. And because my mother is elderly and demented you don’t think she deserves your time. I want her out of here- I want her transferred to her regular hospital and I want her out of here now.”
The nurse and the ward clerk looked at me as if I were about to take them hostage. I knew by the looks on their faces that they now saw me as a problem- an irrational, possibly dangerous, over protected family member-the hospital staffs worse nightmare! But my behavior got results. Although it took them another two hours to process the paperwork, Mom was transferred safely to her regular hospital.
The actual transfer took thirty minutes. Once at mom’s regular hospital, she was taken to the GI lab for a STAT endoscopy. There the GI doc found two huge bleeding ulcers in her stomach that he was able to cauterize. He then admitted her to a medical floor where UPON ARRIVAL to the floor she received two units of blood. After the blood transfusion, her vital signs improved. She even woke up a bit and was more alert-something we hadn’t seen in quite some time. In two days she was discharged back to the nursing home. Thankfully Mom had a good outcome. Had I not insisted that she be transferred from the previous hospital, I knew she would no longer be with us.
This is why patient advocacy is so important. Not only for our loved ones with dementia, but anyone who is ill. Whether you are taking a family member to the emergency room or you are going there for treatment yourself ALWAYS have someone there with you. Everyone needs an advocate who can speak up for them. Not all hospitals are like the first hospital Mom was admitted to. The majority of hospitals employ competent, caring staff. During Mom’s illness she received wonderful care form most of the facilities she was treated in. But there will always be one event that you need to be on the look- out for. If you see something that doesn’t seem right- speak up. This is the time to ask questions and ask for clarifications. Do not feel intimidated. Do not feel you are bothering the staff. It is your right and your loved ones right to know what is going on. Dealing with health care professionals should be comforting- not confusing. When your loved one is being treated you should feel confident that they are being treated right. If you don’t speak up, the consequences can be devastating.

A good advocate needs to be assertive and have good communication skills. This is especially important when dealing with new health care providers that do not know your loved one or their history. Every medical event requires you as advocate to pay close attention to new symptoms as well as new treatment and medications ordered. Granted medical staff are human and humans make mistakes- trust me- I have seen it happen. There will be times when things just don’t seem right. This is when you will need to speak up. If you are not getting the answers you need- leave. Take your loved one to another facility for treatment. It is better to be safe than sorry later. If you don’t act- it could mean your loved ones life.

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