I walked into the dimly lit treatment room, Room 31, to find my next patient quietly and calmly lying in her cot. She had curly graying hair which, when added with the deeply creased wrinkles of her face, made her look much older than her stated age. Despite her attempts to welcome me with a warm smile, her greeting seemed forced. Her smile was but a thready, thin blanket failing to cover the the cold of her pain.
The pain of an alcoholic.
Standing in the corner, huddled together as a unified front, stood two teenagers. A boy and girl. Unlike their mother, they made no attempt to cover their worry. Their appearances were youthful--Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers, straight-legged jeans, graphic t-shirts, and hip stylish haircuts. But their eyes, those pained and aching eyes, bore an unfortunate truth to the years of sadness they had endured. Of their lost innocence.
I introduced myself to the patient before focusing my attention a little more closely on her children. Despite their worry, they were gracious in returning my hellos, introducing themselves.
I turned back to the patient. "Ms. Smith," I asked, "what happened that brought you to our ER this evening?"
Ms. Smith looked at me blankly, a confused haze slowly overtaking her face. I spoke again. "Do you know why you are here this evening?" She continued to stare at me, worrying me with her silence, before eventually nodding her head "no." She spoke. "I have no idea what happened."
I turned to her children. "Can either of you tell me what happened with your mother?"
The son stared down at his feet in response to my question. The daughter, however, connected with my eye contact and spoke up as she nervously tucked her wispy, blondish curls behind her ears. "I think she had a seizure." She got quiet then, her eyes getting more glassy as we continued to hold one another's gaze.
"Please, go on," I encouraged her and she bravely continued her story. She and her brother had been out and, upon returning home, had found their mother lying on the kitchen floor, unresponsive. An abrasion on their mother's forehead and a bleeding tongue greeted them upon closer inspection. After finding a pulse but failing to arouse their mother with yelling and shaking her flaccid body, they called 911. They all rode in the ambulance to the ER. They later put together, with the help of the paramedics, that their mother had probably had an alcohol withdrawal seizure. "She tried to quit cold turkey a few days ago," the daughter continued, shaking her head, "and I told her she needed to go somewhere to get some help."
The mother, intently witnessing her children struggling, started crying as she spoke. "I haven't had a drink for two weeks, honey."
With her words, the son looked up from his feet. "No, Mom, that's not true. You were drunk just over the weekend." The mother offered no excuses to his words.
Just then, the room's curtain pulled open and in walked a middle-aged man, his face strongly resembling the children's faces in both looks and worry.
"Daddy," the girl exclaimed, jumping away from her brother and into her father's arms. "Hi Dad," the son added shyly, giving his father a brief smile before turning his eyes downward again. His pain was palpable.
"Hello, sir," I said, introducing myself, "you must be Mr. Smith."
"I am," he replied, thanking me for taking care of his ex-wife. He turned from me back to his children. "Are you both okay?" he asked, pulling them into his chest for a hug. I caught my breath at his genuine display of love and concern for his kids. It was just what they needed at just the right time.
The kids smiled and looked up into their father's eyes, nodding their heads "yes." Their worried eyes relaxed and I was able to see some small sparkles mirror off their reflection as they continued gazing at their father.
Before turning to a physical exam, I asked a few more questions. It turns out that this patient had an extensive alcohol abuse history. Eight years prior, she had successfully completed an alcohol rehabilitation program and had remained sober for six years, before succumbing to alcohol's temptations again just two years earlier. According to her children and ex-husband, the past few years had been "hell" and had affected all of their lives in a very gloomy, detrimental way. They were just nearing the point of giving up on her, I'm afraid, when two weeks back, the patient announced to her family that she was done with alcohol "for good."
"That didn't last long, though," the son added, "because she got drunk that very night and passed out."
On exam, this woman appeared very fatigued, both mentally and physically. She did have the forehead abrasion that the kids had noticed on their kitchen floor, her eyes nervously flittered horizontally (known medically as nystagmus) within their reddened borders, and her tongue, on the left side, was bitten. Her vital signs were stable and the rest of her exam was unremarkable. It was evident that she had had some type of seizure, most likely an alcohol withdrawal seizure.
We did a full work-up. Her head CT was negative, her labs reflected dangerously low levels of both magnesium and potassium (which we began immediately replacing via her IV), and her alcohol level was zero. Besides addressing her electrolyte imbalances, we also gave her IV multivitamins, hydration, and thiamine to protect her damaged body.
We admitted this patient, much to her family's appreciation. She needed specific medical attention for her alcohol abuse and withdrawal seizure. After arranging all of this, I went back into her room to find this patient and her family much as I had left them, with much love being shared between the children and their father and their mother quietly sitting in the cot observing her children. There was much sadness, for me, from the many facets of this scenario.
"Maam," I said, after reviewing her work-up and disposition, "do you want to stop drinking? Will you accept some help for your problem with alcohol?"
Her answer was music to my ears, and it came without hesitation. "I have to stop drinking," she said. "If not for me, I need to do this for my kids." She paused and looked at her kids, who were now watching her intently. "I love you both too much to continue on this path anymore." With those words, both kids gingerly walked over and wrapped their arms around their mother, the daughter now openly weeping.
How do I know this patient was sincere about wanting help? As I spoke to them about their options for several available in-patient rehabilitation programs, she seemed to be intimately familiar with most of the options. This mother had done her research and had begun taking her own steps toward sobering up and becoming the mother she could be to her children again. She appeared very sincere in wanting nothing more.
I looked at both children hunched over the railings on either side of the treatment cot as they hugged their mother. Despite the daughter's weeping and the son's hesitancy, I could see that their eyes, despite their sparkling and youthfulness just minutes earlier as their father had hugged them, had become edgy, wistful, and nervous again. Old and young and, unfortunately, back to old again, reflecting their aged, hurt souls.
I am not naive. I know it is going to take a lot regained trust and renewed love to keep these children's eyes permanently young. To erase the damage caused by their mother's alcoholism.
Then again, maybe I am naive, because a large part of me thinks that this mother can succeed. For her children's sakes, I can hope for nothing more.
As always, big thanks for reading. I hope your holiday weekend is a good one. Next posting will be Monday, July 5. See you then...