My father’s stroke: 2

Diabetes under scrutinyYou can’t always predict, you can’t always prevent, but I strongly suspect that my father’s stroke could have been avoided.

My father’s runaway diabetes has been a huge problem for the past couple of years. Early one morning in January 2008, I witnessed my father go into diabetic shock. He managed to get up out of bed, wander over to the thermostat and ask my mother where the blintzes were. My mother and I knew something was wrong. His face suddenly looked the size of a cantaloupe. His eyes gazed wonderingly at the temperature gauge as if it contained the mysteries of creation. If he were younger and it was 1968, I’d have said my father was tripping.

After this incident, my younger sister, Pesha, and I jumped up and down in front of my father’s primary care doctor, his nephrologist and the affable doctor who is also the president of my parents’ shul. “We think his medications are off,” we said.

The primary care doctor is to blame to a large degree for not keeping on top of my father’s medications and blood sugar levels. But an equally culpable actor is my father. He doesn’t keep all of his doctors informed about his various doctors’ visits. “I don’t want to insult any of them,” he says.

“You’d rather die?” we ask him.

“I’m going to live forever,” he says.

Don’t go away. The silliness has only just begun.

Around seven o’clock in the evening on March 26, my father took a fall. One of his rabbis had given him a ride home from shul, so my mother was waiting for him. When he didn’t appear, she opened the door. He was lying on his back at the bottom of the front steps. The rabbi was just about to pull out of the driveway. My mother flagged him down. The two of them roused my father, got him on his feet and walked him into the house.

If your diabetic eighty-four-year-old husband had just taken a tumble, what would you do?

Might you have told somebody? A doctor? Your children?

“I didn’t want to bother you,” my mother told me.

I said, “Do you think I call you every night so I can tell you I went to a movie?”

“You have your own life.”

I found out about the fall by chance when I visited for Shabbat. When my father mentioned it, he was almost bragging. It was one more terror he had survived.

I didn’t learn for weeks that my mother had held a cold compress to the back of his head the whole night.

Two weeks later, on the first two days of Passover, my father was more tired than usual. On Friday night he walked over to shul. I was in the kitchen when my sister Pesha came running in and began opening and closing cabinet doors.

She said, “Papa needs aspirin.”

The two of us ran down the street to the shul. When we got there — Pesha in a casual skirt, me in my inappropriate yoga pants — the right side of my father’s face was slack. One of the men, a regular at evening prayers, got my father a Dixie cup of water. The aspirin were downed, and as far as my father was concerned, he had dealt with the situation. Period. The end.

It didn’t help that another one of his DO friends said there was no cause for alarm. This doctor, a long-time family friend, insisted that he himself wouldn’t go to the emergency room in the same circumstances. “Looks like Bell’s Palsy to me,” he said.

Back at the house, our whole family was on hand for our annual Passover get-together. That’s a twisted story in itself, but I’ll get to that later. Everyone wanted my father to go to the ER. My brother-in-law Paul, a medical researcher, said he would go with him.

“You can all leave me alone,” said my father. “I’m not going anywhere.”

The voice of another esteemed doctor — my niece’s husband — voiced his opinion from a hospital in Oakland, CA. “He has the classic symptoms of stroke,” he said. “There’s a small window of opportunity for anything useful to be done. Get him to the ER immediately.”

The long-time family doctor-friend was sure that my father had Bell’s Palsy.

“I hope your malpractice insurance is up to date,” my brother-in-law muttered under his breath.

My sister Pesha sneaked a phone call out to my father’s primary care doctor. The doctor covering for him recommended that my father go to the ER. My father was furious at Pesha.


Over the next four days, my father had trouble chewing, swallowing and keeping his food down. He had no sensation in his lower right lip and in his jaw so he didn’t even know when food was falling out of his mouth.

Intermittently, perhaps two or three times a day, he found himself in the grip of something like a petit mal seizure. Food that had found its way into the non-feeling side of his mouth burbled out onto his lips. He started slurping involuntarily. Because he never lost consciousness, he was able to convince my mother that he still didn’t need medical attention. These episodes occurred two or three times a day and lasted no more than a minute or so.

By Monday afternoon when everyone but me had gone back to their own lives, my father’s face began twitching. Once again my father refused medical intervention. He was satisfied to let my frenzied mother hold his forehead and attempt to massage the twitches into placidity. Whatever the effect of her massage, these episodes also lasted just a minute or two.

Meanwhile, Pesha called my father’s primary care doctor and asked him to make a follow-up phone call to my father. I answered his call on Monday.

“Dr. Pearson wants you to come in for a check-up,” I told my father.

My father adores the guy, so he was willing to see him.

“We always bring him something,” my father said. “Latkes, strudel. He loves everything.”

On Tuesday morning, I drove my father to see Dr. Pearson. My mother sat in the back. I considered it a coup that my father let me drive at all, especially in a cold rain.

Dr. Pearson was a nice young man. He is a dead ringer for the slightly balding, pudding-faced doc in a ten-minute play I wrote about a guy of ordinary intelligence who put his nose to the grindstone and against all odds became a doctor. Maybe I feel I already know him because I have encountered him in fiction. Dr. Pearson kindly accepted the little brown bag of matzo meal pancakes that my mother handed him.

In the examining room, where I sat with him, my father and my mother, Dr. Pearson crouched at my father’s side and talked to him about getting a CT-scan.

“It probably is Bell’s Palsy,” he said, “but we want to rule out stroke.”

“Whatever you tell me to do, I’ll do,” says my father. My father has never spoken to his rabbi with such humility.

“We’ll set up an appointment for you this morning.”

“So soon?”

“The whole thing won’t take you ten minutes.”

We drive the twenty-two miles back to Cherry Hill, grab a bite to eat and then hit the road again for the CT-scan.


Don’t think that my mother is a perky little eighty-year-old caregiver. As she tells it, “I woke up one morning to a silent world.”

My mother’s deafness was not as immediate as she would like us to believe. My sister and I nagged her for a year to get her hearing tested. I wish now that I had made a doctor’s appointment for her, taken a day off from work and driven her in myself. We knew her hearing was failing incrementally and we shouldn’t have tarried.

Once I lost my job at IBM, I told my parents I would get them to their doctors’ appointments — and that included a doctor for my mother. After my father’s CT scan, it was my mother’s turn to meet with her wonderful, brilliant physician.

“He’s not Jewish himself, but he loves the Jewish people,” my father said. As far as I’m concerned, the guy could play a Praetorian guard in an antisemitic passion play every weekend and I wouldn’t care, as long as he could help restore my mother’s hearing.

My father signed my mother into the office. I noticed that he wrote out her name with great deliberation. He omitted the “in” at the end of “Finkelstein.” I noticed but didn’t think to comment.

My mother left the waiting room to take a hearing test. My father’s eyes looked glassy. He often gets that sick, blank expression. It was the same look he had when his blood sugar went too low and his face shrank to the size of a cantaloupe.

After the hearing test, my mother and I consulted with her doctor. He showed us her MRI image and said that the white dots on the brain possibly indicated that she had experienced a series of small strokes, culminating in the total deafness of her left ear. The good news was that she still had some hearing in the right ear and even a smidgin in the left. She had to see a neurologist as soon as possible and then come back to him to be fitted for a hearing aid.

A father with Bell’s Palsy and a mother with transient ischemic activity. Within a matter of a few weeks, my parents had gone from old to elderly.

We went back into the waiting room to meet my father. He wasn’t there. We checked the bathroom. Nope. We asked the staff if they had seen him. “Does he have a history of wandering around?” one of them asked. He hadn’t until now.

A patient in the waiting room told us that she had seen an older man standing by a car. My mother and I went out into the rain to search.

NEXT: My father’s stroke: 3

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  1. Amy said

    And I thought my mother was stubborn! We could have a Stubborn Elderly Parent’s Face-Off!

  2. modestine said

    I actually understand my father’s stubbornness. He has had a rebellious streak in his nature his whole life. It helped him survive the Nazis. It helped him run his own business for 30 years. I even understand his resistance to the help he gets from my mother, my sister and me. I wouldn’t be happy if somebody came into my home and started telling me how I was going to live my life from now on.

    Our parents didn’t get to old age by being softies. I just wish they could accept help with a wee bit more placidity. — Thanks again for commenting. — B

  3. Edie A said


    I’m sorry to read about your parents’ medical difficulties–bummer. They are very lucky to have you and Pesha watching out for them. The prognosis is probably not real optimistic because parents are supposed to die before their children–it’s the right and natural way. But at least you appreciate them now and can show your deep love. As I think you know, both my parents went too quickly.

  4. Rukhl said

    As I read your blog about your father, I was literally sitting at the edge of my seat… Surprisingly, I felt myself laughing, too. Great job!

  5. […] My father’s stroke: 2 […]

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