Last November, while out doing some errands before Thanksgiving, my dad suffered from an out-of-the-blue grand mal seizure (now called a tonic-clonic). He collapsed in an automotive store, was taken by ambulance to the hospital, and then was unconscious for a week in the neuro ICU. Eventually he was diagnosed with epilepsy and prescribed anti-seizure medication. I wrote about that time in our lives here. For six months he had no seizures. Until yesterday.
Last night, just before dinner, I thought I lost my dad.
One minute we were driving back from the airport, having picked up my younger brother Kyle for the weekend, and the next moment...
I've never been so terrified in all my life.
He stopped breathing and turned absolutely grey. All color drained from his face, even his eyes, staring right at me, dulled. His lips turned blue, slackened, the yell he'd delivered a second before still ringing in my ears. And although he was squeezing my hand and I knew his heart was still beating, I thought, Is this it?!
But it wasn't it. In fact, just four hours later I would sit down across from him, next to Kyle, to eat dinner together. What happened was a tonic-clonic seizure (grand mal). For fifteen minutes an electrical storm waged across my dad's brain and it was the scariest thing I've ever experienced.
This is how it transpired:
At 4:15p Friday afternoon, George and I were parked in the Wait & Call area of the Oakland airport, awaiting Kyle. At 4:25p we got his call and headed over to Arrivals. From there we made our way to George's: 880 to 92, pay our $5 and cross the San Mateo Bridge, past 101 and 280 and eventually the Crystal Springs Reservoir, wind our way up to the top of the hill, and then left on 35, we sailed all along the ridge line of Skyline Blvd, past King's Mountain and Woodside, through the redwoods and then climbed higher. Approximately an hour and a half.
And the whole way we were talking. Mostly Kyle and George, actually. I drove and enjoyed hearing them together. As we finally neared George's driveway, Kyle asked a question. Silence. I glanced over at George and he was sort of smiling, just looking out the windshield. Thinking he must have been lost in thought, I answered for him, and pulled into the driveway. At this point, George attempted to get out of the car to open the gate, but seemed to have forgotten how to open the door. He tried the window, and the locks, and finally I pointed at the handle. He got out and opened the gate.
Is he doing ok? Kyle asks. I thought so, but this is a little weird, I say.
After I park the car, George meets me at my door and clearly wants me to get something out of the car for him, but he can't find the word for what he wants. At this point I notice that his right hand is twitching. His eyes are teary. I ask him if he's ok and he says, no, not really.
OK. Let's go inside and sit down, and then we can talk about what you want. He has trouble with the keys, so I take them and unlock the front door. We all go to the living room and sit down.
At this point I'm thinking he's feeling nauseous. He just had chemo a couple of days ago. I recall that it's been a long time since he's eaten anything. I cooked us lunch at noon, but now it is close to 6p. Too long.
I ask him how he's doing. Again, he tries to talk about what he wanted me to retrieve from the car, but again he can't find the words he's looking for. I acknowledge this and notice again that his right arm is really starting to shake.
This doesn't seem right, Kyle says. I agree. Pop, you want us to get you some help? he asks.
No. Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, battle! Battle, battle, battle, battle, battle, battle, battle, battle!
He's looking right at me, a small smile on his lips, which I take for baffled frustration. The limb shaking is increasing, and then suddenly he's rubbing his right temple very hard.
Battle, battle, battle, battle, battle, battle!
Kyle is dialing 911. My dad is having a seizure.
I lunge toward George. I'm on my knees next to him, my hands on him: You're ok. We're getting you some help. You're going to be ok, dad. You're having a seizure. It's ok. Keep breathing. Don't worry. This will pass. You'll find the words.
Battle, battle, battle, battle, battle, battle!
Then he's scratching his stomach hard, all his limbs are twitching. I feel the muscles in his arms so rigid. Now he's not speaking just shaking. Then he relaxes in the chair, but he's not present. He's not unconscious, but he's not responding to me or Kyle at all. Wherever he is in his mind he has something in his hand that he really wants to put on the coffee table. He's pinching the air tightly between his thumb and fingers, reaching out with it. Kyle tries to take it from him, we tell him we've got it, but he's not aware of us at all. It takes all my strength to keep him from falling face first into the coffee table. Finally he relaxes back.
And then another wave of shaking rolls through his body and he arches his back. He head is back and he's looking up at the ceiling above me. His eyes widen and his mouth opens in an O. Then, his eyes wide, he yells and starts full-body convulsing. His teeth clench and the veins in his neck are popping out. Hard breathing is replaced with sudden silence, no breathing. The color drains from his face and eyes.
Two minutes passes.
And then he's sucking air in and out of his nose. His teeth are still clenched. Foam collects at the corners of his mouth. His eyes are rolled back. His legs are straight, rigid. But the shaking has stopped. His hand grips mine.
Kyle is reporting the inhalations to the dispatcher: Now... Now... Now... Now...
Finally his body relaxes. And then the fire department arrives: First the volunteers -- one a friend -- and then the Cal Fire crew. Kyle and I move back: Help is here!
It's my dad! He's right in here!
We pass the baton. Vitals are taken, questions asked (Do you know where you are? Who's the president? and Has this happened before? What medication is he taking?). And 28 minutes after Kyle's initial call, the ambulance arrives. By this time, George is back. He's fuzzy, but following commands, answering the questions as best he can. And then he's going down the hill in the ambulance.
We'll meet you there! We're right behind you!
Holy shit.. what just happened? Kyle and I look at each other. Wow... In a daze we run around the house collecting a change of clothes (for him), quick snacks (for us), meds (his), a dog treat (Ashley's -- thank you for not tasting any of the firefighters!). And then we're off -- following the ambulance down to the hospital, through the automatic door under the big red EMERGENCY.
And when we arrive he's fully back. Totally himself. It's incredible! Such a relief!
In Emergency, a baby is crying behind one curtain, an old woman behind another, and there is so much activity. Nurses and staff everywhere. Lots of noise. But in the midst of it all, there is George is Bed #7, smiling, talking to a nurse. He sees me across the nurse's station: April! Come over here a sec! What's this thing in my chest called again? Hi, it's a Mediport.
After an EEG, a head CT, blood work, a chest x-ray, and a conversation between the ER doctor and the oncologist, lots of waiting, a nap (George), lots of texting and phone calling (Kyle and I to family and concerned neighbors), the ER doctor calls the seizure a "red herring; nothing to worry about; a break-through seizure."
And then, incredibly, exhausted, starving, dazed we are heading home again. We are walking out of Emergency, through the automatic doors, under the big red sign. No one stops us. No one insists on a wheel chair, even.
And so we go home, and have dinner. Four hours late.