Whew! I have a lot to say on this subject. Dealing with medical emergencies while abroad is one thing in life that I wish came with an instruction manual. I’m coming down from dealing with a medical emergency that happened right before I marked my first year in Canada. For those of you who don’t know what happened, my mother got appendicitis. I mentioned it in my One Year in Canada! post. What I haven’t talked about is that she had a rare complication a week after her appendectomy. Fortunately, she’s home and recovering well. Here’s my story, which I wanted to write while this was still fresh in my mind.
I will do another post or two on tips for current and prospective expats on dealing with emergencies while abroad. I wish I could provide a rulebook, but I hope sharing my stories and personal tips will help. My posts will also include tips for native-born citizens who want to know how best to support migrants when they are dealing with emergencies.
Please note, I am going to be brutally honest here because this subject is not often discussed. If you don’t wish to continue reading from here, I won’t hold it against you. Disclaimer: I will be discussing medical things and mental health problems that some people might find disturbing. That being said, if this post helps someone else through an emergency while they’re abroad, I will have done my job!
Some Relevant Things I want to Mention:
I had appendicitis a few years ago, and I still remember vividly how it presented. It was my first hospitalization experience and I had trauma to work through in counselling afterwards. I learned the hard way that you MUST go to the Emergency Room if you have abdominal pain! If you talk to anyone who has had appendicitis, you will see that they have an intense fear in their face. Appendicitis generally happens when you’re under 30 years old and it’s normally someone’s first hospitalization experience. It sure was with me, anyway. So, I’m not surprised to see people who are part of the Appendix Free Club look scared when they remember their experience.
A month ago, the hospitals in Alberta reached a breaking point with the Delta variant. They were short-staffed and the military and Red Cross were called in to help. Additionally, when Alberta introduced a proof of vaccination program, Covidiots were protesting outside hospitals! Fortunately, that was made illegal, but it wasn’t done out of concern for people on hospital premises. Anyone who wishes to rant about this in the comments, please do! Mum and I decided to be vigilant because we didn’t want to have to go to the ER under those circumstances.
How Things Started:
Canadian Thanksgiving was on October 11. Mum and I had a great day cooking and listening to music from Canadian singers while we worked. It perplexed me though that Mum didn’t feel like eating much. The next morning, Mum thought she had a stomach ulcer, but the things we tried didn’t work. Later that day, I called the nurse at our family practice for a phone assessment. When Mum said the words “abdominal pain” and described certain symptoms, a warning bell went off in my mind. Even though the situation in the hospitals had improved a bit, I felt like I needed to talk to the nurse before taking Mum to the ER for abdominal pain! Under normal circumstances, I would have taken her as soon as she said the words “abdominal pain” HANDS DOWN!
The nurse told me to take Mum to the ER and I asked her which one is best to go to, considering the circumstances. She assured me all the hospitals have super strict triage protocols. We almost felt bad for imposing on an already strained hospital system, even though it was a genuine emergency. When I took Mum to the ER, they told me I couldn’t go in with her because of COVID-19 protocols. I had a hunch Mum had appendicitis though, so I encouraged her to ask to be tested for it. She’s not in the normal age range for it, but it’s not unheard of for older people to get it. I have said many times though that appendicitis is a young person’s disease. This study says the same thing.
I know some older people who have had appendicitis and they have struggled with it or were misdiagnosed at first. That was not happening to my mother!
My hunch was correct! To be clear though, I have no medical background at all. I just have vivid memories of my own appendicitis experience. Plus, I have had a lot of conversations with others about appendicitis. We got the diagnosis late at night and Mum was in surgery the next day. I wanted to visit her, but I couldn’t. They would only allow me in if it was an hour before surgery, but we had no idea when that would happen. By now, my Fuck This Pandemic List was a mile long! I know we all have our lists these days, but I was so livid that I threw something across the room! That never happens. Let it be known that the Covidiots, who find new ways of acting entitled, took away my opportunity to be with my mother when she needed it most!
I was able to bring Mum home the same day she had surgery! Sometimes, things just work! I bought a cake for the ward that took care of Mum to thank them. If I said I was ecstatic, that would have been an understatement! I was proud of Mum for not only going through this but doing it during a pandemic when I couldn’t be there to hold her hand! There was a certain amount of guilt and flashbacks too. I have often said how grateful I am that I didn’t have appendicitis during the pandemic. I don’t know if I would have been able to deal with it. At this point, I was also hoping Mum wouldn’t have any complications because of the hospital situation. I threw myself into taking care of her and decided to deal with any mental health repercussions later.
Things Were Only Beginning
After Mum got home, we discussed whether we wanted my Dad to fly in to help out. Ultimately, we decided we didn’t need him to come unless something else went wrong. At first, things seemed okay, but there were some warning signs. I was confused about what to do sometimes, and Mum kept asking me questions about my own experience. I could tell she needed major reassurance. We called this 24-hour line where you can speak to a nurse, which, in retrospect, we did too early. A week after she came home from the hospital, we had to call our family practice nurse again. Mum mentioned something that set off a warning bell for me. Plus, our doctor calling us back didn’t help.
I spent the night trying to help her with the concerning thing. I knew if it didn’t work, it was back to the ER. The writing was on the wall though, because since she had got home, she had barely eaten and was tolerating liquids at first, but then that stopped. I was considering force-feeding her, if necessary. The dread I felt when Mum went back to the ER was penetrating. Mum tried to reassure me by saying, “Think of me just going to Banff for a weekend.” Or, “I likely will only be in the hospital for a day.” Somehow, I knew that wasn’t true. I felt terribly guilty like I had let her down.
The Next Day:
I was able to visit my Mum the next day for an hour. The nurse said the current diagnosis was a paralytic ileus and Mum had a nasogastric tube to drain her stomach and relax her digestive system. Yes, that is as bad as it sounds. Plus, she couldn’t wear a mask. Surgery was a possible treatment option, but we didn’t know if that was necessary. Mum was super happy to see me! It did us both good to see each other. I asked her if I should tell Dad to fly in to help us, and she said yes. I was already about to tell my Dad we needed him anyway, but I wanted to make sure Mum wanted it too. As soon as I left the hospital, I called my Dad and told him to come as soon as possible.
Later on, Dad said that he would arrive in two days and stay for a week. He had the option of extending it if he needed to. I started counting down the hours until I saw him again! He called me later to tell me he had a problem getting a required travel COVID-19 test before flying though. Apparently, it’s hard to get COVID-19 tests for travel at such short notice. For a minute, we thought Dad would have to change his flight. I contacted my friends in my TCK group and one of them told me that SFO was doing rapid COVID-19 tests that met the requirements for international travel. After grumbling about the fact that SFO charges a premium on their travel tests, Dad decided to go with that. As he said, “They wear you down into paying the costs.”
Then, It Got Serious:
I went to see Mum the next day. She had a CT scan and was awaiting the results. She seemed emotionally better, especially after seeing me the previous day, but I was concerned that physically, there was no change. I hoped the CT scan would give us an answer. She seemed happy when I told her Dad would be coming in less than 30 hours. She knew what I was up against with logistical problems, so she encouraged me to prepare for Dad’s arrival and pick him up at the airport. By the time I left the hospital, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing her the next day. So, I said a variation of Mama Imelda’s line from Coco, “Mum, I give you my blessing to get better, be strong, and never NEVER forget how much your family loves you!”
There were some nice things that happened that day. I called my Dad in the afternoon to update him, and our neighbour was over talking to him about looking after the cat, so I talked to her too. Later on, my aunt surprised me with a phone call! We talked for about half an hour. That made my day! She and Mum email each other frequently, and she got worried when she didn’t hear from Mum for a week.
I was happy for a while, and then Dad called the hospital that night. They found out Mum had a hernia and she was about to have emergency surgery! Then, everything good about the day came crashing down around me.
An Emotional Day and The Worst Night:
That day was a super emotional day. I had been hiding my feelings behind a wall for so long, and then it broke like the Oroville Dam. Before I saw my Mum, I had a chiropractic adjustment and then started crying. One of the receptionists at the chiropractic office gave me a hug. At this point, I was like, “To hell with COVID-19! I NEED a hug!”
That afternoon, I didn’t know how to feel about seeing my Dad again after a year apart. I watched YouTube clips from movies about kids seeing their parents again after such a long time apart. I needed some tearjerkers. The one that REALLY got me going though was a music video from one of my favourite bands. It’s SO TCK!
To those of you who are either experiencing an emergency while abroad or have done so, this music video is for you!
I went to bed knowing my Mum was having a life-saving operation. I had questions floating around my head and I was shivering. Even though I had tried everything in my anxiety toolkit, it got to the point nothing worked. I was alone in a foreign country worried that I would get a call from the hospital in the middle of the night. My sleep was interrupted by panic attacks. At 3:30 in the morning, a few of my friends in my TCK group were having a call and I jumped on. I am not the only one in that group that’s been going through something lately. So, we all just talked and held space for each other. I don’t know what I would do without that group sometimes! Once I hung up, I was able to get some sleep.
When I woke up, I called the hospital. I told my Dad to call me from SFO so I could give him an update on Mum. When the nurse spoke to me in a happy voice and told me Mum was stable and recovering well, I was fighting back tears of joy! She had made it! They were going to take the nasogastric tube out later! YAYY!! I also talked to Mum and she was already sounding better. I told her to sleep and that I would visit her the next day at the hospital, possibly with Dad!
Mum told me to get some treats at our favourite patisserie for the ward and the surgical team that saved her life! I did it without hesitation! You would not know that the hospital staff were under so much pressure with COVID-19! Any time my Mum said that she or I were vaccinated, the response was always, “Thank you!” EVERY. SINGLE. TIME! Whenever Mum felt right, she would always have words of gratitude for her healthcare heroes. They truly ARE heroes doing what they do during a global pandemic and being screwed by the institutions they work for and people who deny there is a pandemic! I don’t have the words to say how grateful I am to the heroes that saved my Mum’s life!
I did a dance for joy and suddenly had a burst of energy for the rest of the day! It was quite a coincidence that it happened the same day that my Dad was due to arrive. I happily relayed the news to Dad when he was at SFO and told him I would meet him at YYC! Then I set to work preparing for his arrival.
A Note about Logistical Problems:
Every emergency has logistical problems. I had to plan my day when I called the hospital in the morning. I had some logistical problems with getting to the hospital. When you’re a caregiver, time is of the essence, so I would Uber there. I didn’t even have the bandwidth to check public transport options. Plus, the first time we went to the hospital, we had to go on one of Calgary’s famous trails. The trails are connecting roads in the city, which turn into mini-freeways. I find using public transport to be difficult when trails are involved. Either you get windy routes or infrequent service. That’s not good if you’re a caregiver. Every day, I wondered if Mum going to have surgery, or if I would be bringing her home. If either of those answers was “Yes”, I wouldn’t visit her.
I didn’t know if I was going to get my Dad from the airport until the morning of his arrival. I didn’t know if I would be visiting Mum the same day Dad arrived or have other stuff to do for her on top of preparing for Dad’s arrival. By the time my Dad arrived, I had been in limbo and running on empty for over 10 days, even before Mum went back to the hospital. I didn’t know if I was going to be ready for Dad to arrive either. Fortunately, Dad said that if I didn’t have everything done, he would help me when he got there! The relief!
Ready or Not:
Thank goodness for that burst of energy that I got that morning! I had less than 8 hours to set up our small apartment to fit another person before I had to leave for the airport! Mum and I were planning to do a massive clean of the apartment, but then she got sick. So, I had to improvise, find stuff that I needed in the weirdest places in the house, stress over whether we had too many plastic bags, and move everything to a convenient location.
Meanwhile, I kept checking the time, my text and email messages, and the real-time flight tracker. I kept making sure I had the route to and from the airport planned out. It rained the whole day and I was hoping it would clear up before Dad got here! No such luck. I tried to rest because I had time to do so. Nope. Too excited and wondering what would happen to have Dad here. Finally, it was time to leave.
I took two buses to get to the airport and whenever I was at a certain point in my journey, I would take a guess on where Dad was flying over. That’s one excuse to keep looking at a flight tracker, I guess.
When I got to YYC:
I hadn’t been to the international terminal before. I had arrived at the domestic terminal when I moved to Calgary because of doing a layover in Vancouver. Therefore, I had to take a photo of this beautiful glass sculpture of the Canadian Rockies! It calmed me a bit too. I had a certain amount of nerves about seeing my Dad again. Fortunately, I was texting with my friend Hilary Tan from Sereneluna! I want to give her an extra special shoutout for her unconditional support during this time! At one point, I said, “Fuck COVID! I’m hugging my Dad!” She said, “Do it!” I am so grateful for you continuing to check in on me and being there to text whenever, Hilary!
PSA for international travellers! Even if this might not be applicable to every travel situation, take note! I had told my Dad that I would meet him at the baggage area, but when I got to YYC, they had a COVID-19 testing line and I couldn’t go past it. At the time, I didn’t know what that was for since they don’t even let you on the plane if you don’t have the required tests to enter a country. I kept hoping, “Dad! Please put two and two together here!” Fortunately, he did because I saw him in the line to go past security. I jumped and waved to make sure he saw me! When he saw me, he told me he had been selected randomly for a COVID-19 test. Because of course, he did. I hung around all irritated that I had to wait to greet my Dad properly.
I gave Dad an extra long hug!!! And then on the way home, we didn’t stop talking. We were like the magpies we feed every morning having their little corvid party… Lol. It was getting dark as we left the airport, but I was still able to point out a few things, like Chinatown and the Calgary Tower. Dad insisted on calling it the Space Needle. Oh well, we’ll get there, eventually. It was after 8 pm when we got home. When I called Mum in the hospital, I told her no, even with today’s technology, I didn’t do a three-way voice call using my cell phone and our home phone with Dad. He was really here! Even though it was a long day, I still had to go over living logistics with Dad. We relaxed with the first two episodes of Schitt’s Creek before going to bed.
Mum said later on that she was moved to a private room before surgery. She had tested positive for MRSA. The room overlooked the city and the night Dad arrived, she felt well enough to watch the sunset. She watched the time knowing that Dad was arriving and I was picking him up at the airport. Somehow I knew that Mum was there with us in spirit. That was a tissue moment when we shared that!
Visiting the Hospital… With A Twist
Dad was able to visit Mum with me! They asked him a few more questions at the screening area and he had to show his documentation. I also brought the treats that Mum told me to get. I got a lemon meringue tart, a box of 24 macarons and some little boxes of chocolates at my favourite patisserie! When I dropped them off at the nurses’ station, the looks on their faces were priceless! I also told them to pass some on to the surgical team that saved Mum’s life. I wasn’t allowed to hug Mum because of the MRSA, but I was happy to see her eating and looking MUCH better! There was talk of her being discharged the next day!
Then, I told Mum I had a surprise for her and went to get Dad. We were only allowed on the ward one at a time. I let them catch up for a while. In the last ten minutes, I talked to Mum and she told me why she was in emergency surgery. Apparently, her bowel had got into the area where they had removed the appendix and started twisting. It’s a rare complication that has only happened four times in the history of the hospital! The surgeon that saved Mum’s life said he had only seen it once before.
Dad said he was able to walk around and see the views from the hospital. There was the city on one end and the Canadian Rockies on the other. I knew he couldn’t leave without seeing that! He’s SUCH a Montana boy! When I shared the photos below with my friends, they asked me if the hospital rents out rooms!
Mum’s Finally Home!
I was able to get Mum the next day! I felt like I was about to explode! When I was pushing her in the wheelchair out of the hospital, I calmed down though. As my Dad said once when he was pushing me in a hospital wheelchair, “Let’s try not to break any speed records here!” I added another phrase to use when going into an elevator, “Excuse me, precious cargo here!” I didn’t get to use it this time though.
For the next 5 days, Dad helped me out with whatever major chores I needed help with and tag-teamed with me on caregiving duties. Whenever we had some quiet time, we either watched Schitt’s Creek or slept! We managed to get through all six seasons of Schitt’s Creek before Dad left! I can’t tell you how grateful I was that Dad dropped everything and came to help out! He could only stay a week though because our cat is living with him and she gets separation anxiety if we leave her too long. There are times I wish he could have stayed longer though. We’re still exhausted from this experience, and I estimate that it’s going to be at least a month before my Mum even starts feeling normal again.
We’re getting to the point though that people assume we aren’t struggling anymore. In reality, we still have problems. When you’re going through an emergency, people who normally give you toxic positivity cool it for a bit, but then when the danger ends, it resumes. People ask me if I have any fun plans coming up, and I say not for a month at least and move on. That being said, I am still super grateful for the outpouring of love I have got from family and friends!
I wanted to give a shoutout to my TCK community at TCK Global and my followers here and on Instagram for their support and love! I know I said I am taking a break, but I wanted to write this post and share it with you all.
One important thing I forgot to say is when my Dad was visiting the hospital, he was enjoying the views from an empty room. He told me that someone had defaced a patient whiteboard with comments such as “Lies, lies, lies!” and “Covid is a hoax!” Now that you have read my story, look me in the eye and tell me that! If you had seen our healthcare heroes go out of their way for their patients to give them quality care despite being screwed by Institution X and Covidiots, you would have more respect for them than ever! You would not know they were under so much pressure and risk. I may never meet the people who saved my mother’s life, but my gratitude for them will stay with me forever!
What was even more touching was giving the ward and surgical team treats to say thank you. Mum said that after I did that, the surgeon who saved her life came up to personally thank her! Apparently, the box of macarons went to the surgical team and the ward had the cake. I don’t know who got the chocolates. As Mum says, “It’s not every day when someone saves your life.”
To those of you who are struggling with a medical emergency while living abroad, my heart goes out to you. I hope this post gives you strength and peace.