The Other Side Of The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

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“Uh, I need your help in here.”

My grandpa was standing at the door of his bedroom in his threadbare wife beater and dress slacks, holding onto the door frame.

I jumped up from the couch and he led me into the bathroom.

“I can’t do it. I need to piss so badly but I can’t do it.” He held out the catheter tube and plastic beaker. “I am so sorry. I need help.” The look on his face was a mixture of embarrassment, resignation, and frustration such that I had never seen before.

“Do you want me to take you to the ER?” Please want to go to the ER. Please, please, please.

“I am NOT going back to that damn hospital!” he said through gritted teeth. He took a deep breath. “You know how to do this, right? You can help me?”

“Are you sure, grandpa?”

“Yes.”

I used my bright cheery doctor voice and said, “Sure thing!” Inside I was thinking: Oh, God. I am going to handle my grandfather’s penis…

He dropped his pants and I lubed up the rubber tubing, sliding it in until we got over a liter of urine and relief.

I pulled the catheter out and rinsed it in the sink.

“I am so sorry,” he said meekly.

“I don’t mind, grandpa.” And I really didn’t. Surprisingly, you can find that place of clinical detachment even with your grandfather’s penis. What bothered me more was the humiliation I knew he was feeling.

I gave him a hug.

“Did they teach you how to do this at the hospital, have you try a few times?” I was curious.

“No.”

He had been hospitalized for dehydration. He had not been drinking liquids much prior because of the fact that it made him pee all the dang time. Prostate. He had not wanted anyone to address his prostate. So, with a significant fluid deficit, a little stomach bug put him down. While hospitalized, he had gotten to where he could not urinate without a catheter. He was told that he could go home with one that stayed in his bladder and drained into a bag strapped to his leg, or he could do intermittent self catheterizing every 4 hrs or so.

He sure as hell was not going to walk around with a bag of piss strapped to his leg.

So intermittent cath-ing was the thing. Except that he really didn’t know how to do the deed. He had gone 16 hours without telling me until he just could not take it anymore.

“It would probably be better for me to just go on and die. I don’t want to be a burden.”

“Nonsense, Grandpa! You are not a burden.” I dried the catheter and the beaker and left them laying out on a towel on the counter next to his shaving supplies.

My 87 year old grandpa had spent the fifteen years since my grandmother’s death smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. He would freely admit to anyone that asked, particularly snotty grandkids like me that didn’t like his smoking, that he was trying to kill himself with it.

“Oh, grandpa, don’t be silly! You don’t really want to die. You love ME, don’t you? You want to be around for me, right?” In retrospect, it was an incredibly stupid, selfish, naive thing for a twenty something girl to say. But I loved my grandpa.

I spent the next day and a half teaching him how to self cath and he got it down like a pro.

He was dead in a week.

I had peace knowing he was ready to go. Oh, so ready.

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100 thoughts on “The Other Side Of The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

  1. I’m not quite sure how to react. Obviously, sad that your grandpa died. But it’s good you were able to progress from being his granddaughter to being the doctor he needed at that moment. Again, something most of us non-medical people think about or have to face.

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  2. My heart hurt for your grandfather. For the last month or two of her life, my mother had a portable downstairs commode (no downstairs bathroom in her house) that needed to be cleaned out. She was too ill to do it and too embarrassed to have anyone else do it. I did it twice a day and kept low key about it. My cousin (who loved her like a mother) came one day and noticed some urine in it. My mother was mortified when she cleaned it. When I got there later that day she was in tears about it. I can’t even imagine your grandfather’s embarrassment.

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  3. It so wonderful that you didn’t make a big deal out of it, given the delicacy of the situation, which would make him even more uncomfortable. In the end, love and compassion wins out every time. I’m sure he loved you very much! Peace♥

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  4. This must have been hard for both of you. Humiliation (and witnessing humiliation) is truly the worst part of being sick. I bet this memory helps you be a more empathetic doctor.

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  5. Sorry your Grandfather died. I am glad you were able to help him. I suppose, it was just “his time.” I can understand how a proud man (or woman) could have trouble asking for help, especially in situations like these. I’ve been cathed before, twice by a co-worker when I was a CNA. I still have some bladder troubles today, that I am finally willing to admit over 20 years later. The photo is absolutely beautiful.

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  6. I don’t know about self catherization, at that age. Techneque will be wanting and their steadiness of hand will be lacking. UTI’s will result. There are worse things than dieing. He was ready and it was his time. God rest his soul.
    Leslie

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  7. I guess we all have to take on the role of “family doc” at some point in the lives of our parents/grandparents. Thankfully the extent of my role, so far, has been to decipher reports and receive phone calls from random physicians because “oh, my daughter/granddaughter will know what you’re talking about more than me.” (Oh, and also trying to convince my poor, hot, sweaty, moody, sluggish, sleep-deprived mother that Oprah, and Dr. Oz, and any other national celebrity doesn’t know as much about HRT as they purport). Once my role requires a more “hands on” approach, I will remember that nothing can be as bad as handling your grandfather’s penis. 🙂

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  8. “nothing can be as bad as handling your grandfather’s penis” love this line from Gennie! While my heart broke for you AND your grandfather, I couldn’t help retreat to the child-me who was forced to handle her grandfather’s penis and not for medical purposes. You think maybe if I’d tried catheterizing him he’d have gotten over that whole pedophile thing? Would have been worth a try if I’d had any idea what that was back then. 😀

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  9. I am surprised and not surprised that your grandfather was not taught how to do self-cathing before being discharged. I was in Nursing before discharge planning but I was also a Home Health Nurse and we were sent out to help people with just this sort of thing. I used to worry a lot about elderly people being asked to do things by themselves as well but on the other hand I learned that many are very capable of learning to do these things. I taught self-cathing to women and I think that is harder. The image is very beautiful with all the bright colors. Is that in Italy?

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  10. My 94 year old mother in law told me she “just wanted to die.” She didn’t tell anyone else in her family. I think it is excellent and somewhat unusual that your grandfather told multiple people the truth. Usually aged people who are ready to die only tell the people who are capable of hearing. Maybe on some level, despite your protests, he knew you were capable of hearing.

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  11. I don’t know why, but that did something for me. Perhaps it’s because I may be in the same situation some day and am grateful there are kind, caring people like you that can help. It also gave me the impression that death isn’t so bad when one considers how some of us have to live. Thank you for a very enlightening experience! I always enjoy your blog :O)

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  12. I’ve lost all of my grandparents. Three of four went the hard slow way. The embarrassment is the worst thing for them. These were vibrant healthy people at one time. They also had an ideal from an earlier time, and some of the things they had to endure in old age were mortifying. I feel for you in this position, but I feel for him more.

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  13. I can relate to this from the other side. I’m old and crippled and occasionally bed-ridden, so when I needed “help” like this I was forced to call on my best friend, a nurse. It certainly changed the relationship between us! In fact, we fell in love. Being old hippies, we lived together for awhile, but when it became obvious that I was no longer able to take care of myself, we got married.

    Ten years down the road it’s still embarrassing to ask her to examine a lump in a strange place or discuss the color changes of urine. Probably once a week we confer on whether or not I need to see a doctor immediately or if it’ll wait until my quarterly check-up. Heck, I’m embarrassed to have to call for help when I fall and can’t get up by myself. It’s not easy to pretend to be the “John Wayne” type when you need an enema or help changing the sheets.

    But I’m adjusting (see my blog at: http://lifeinthechair.wordpress.com/) and, speaking from the “other side”, I’m sure your grandfather was glad he was able to have someone on which he could call. I know that I sure am.

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  14. The ending of thus story brought tears to my eyes. It didnt make me uncomfortable, it just made me sad about the indignity of aging. My grandad passed away a few years ago at Christmas and he was SO ready to go, butnone of us could bear it or understand it. I think deep down, we understood, nut that selfish(?) part that wanted them always around took over. Man, I am tearing up all over the place now. Powerful piece today x.

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  15. Oh Doc, your poor Grandpa. And poor you. It brings to mind so many stories I’ve been told over the years. What courage it took for him to ask you, what courage it took for your to comply and give him the respect and dignity of your responses. What a difficult position aging (or injury or disability) can put us in. I wish I could be that graceful. I sat with my mom in a hospital room a couple of weeks ago and we were joking about something I told her for God’s sake she better never need me to do something like that for her (referencing personal care) to which we both cringed and freaked out a little. Okay, a lot. We were both on the same page about that. Fortunately we have others in the family who can tend to that, I’ll take out the trash, mow the grass, clean, shop, everything else. I don’t who panicked at the thought of it more, me or her. Kudos to you and your great grace. RIP to your Grandpa.

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  16. Oh wow… That is a huge point, isn’t it? Something you probably see all the time. Old people who want to go. But can’t. And of course their families telling them that they can’t leave. Understandable, still brutal… At least he did not have to ask anyone again to help him with peeing… It must have made it easier for him.

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  17. I think to die when you want to is a good thing. I wish it will happen to me. That I will have a good life ( I am happy) and when it stops, I will die. Painlessly and with dignity. I know, people live longer, but I also see lots of almost hundred year olds who no longer want to live. They are bored, tired, their life has shrank.

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  18. Your story is very moving. My family has little experience with aging/health-impaired relatives. All our grandparents died in their 50’s and early 60’s. When my dad reached 73, he suffered with congestive heart disease. I visited him on Father’s Day and learned they were prepping him for in-home nursing care, installing a first floor bed and portable toilet. I left that day thinking he would never suffer the indignity. He died in his own bed 2 days later.

    I have so much respect for those who can administer to needy family members. Bless you for your efforts. He must have known how much you loved him.

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  19. I love the way you tell a story. Sad but so loving. My last moments with my father were also wrapped around his need to pee. I came to visit him. All the plans were in place for him to be discharged and sent to a SNF for a short duration. I walked into his room and he was in congestive heart failure. He was pretty much out of it and the nurse told me they had given him laxis. I was standing next to him and he came up….from where ever he was and I asked, Dad do you have to go? I meant of course, pee. He focused and mummer with a slight nod, yes. The nurse got a urinal and we stepped out of the room but I stayed in the doorway. He died right then…. which was what he meant when he said he had to go.

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  20. Humiliation and humility learned in one swift lesson. I am sure that your grandpa was more grateful to be relieved of 1000 ml of urine than he was humiliated. At various points in our lives we have to let go of our pride. Even so, perhaps your granddad died within a week because he saw no value in living and maybe having to lose more dignity than he could handle.

    You handled it like a pro and really- there is no need to cringe as you re-think those moments.

    As you wrote above, old age sucks. There is no such thing as aging gracefully and I have no idea who the ass was that came up with the golden years. I hope that I can go as both my parents. They each died suddenly and there were no nursing home moments. They were blessed and I am thankful and grateful. They live into their eighties.

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  21. *sigh*
    i can relate to this in so many ways. thanks for writing this, and fleshing out those awkward, vulnerable, yet intimate moments that occur in the last stages of life. you describe it very eloquently.

    also i really like the title of this post. it reminds me of a quote one of my colleagues says,
    “there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and i will reassure you that.. it’s not a train.” =)

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  22. My sympathies for you and your grandpa, and I thank you for writing this post. As for the rest of it I can only assure you, your grandfather handled it most likely far better than I ever will. Just thinking about what will happen if I ever survive to that point in life is my biggest waking nightmare when I consider my inability to let anybody else get anywhere near me. It should prove interesting.

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  23. Very tender and touching story. Your poor grandfather must have suffered so terribly before asking you for help. It says a lot about your relationship that he could manage it. So glad you wrote this. It is a good to know when you are ready to go. I am in good health, enjoying my life thoroughly, yet the thought of death doesn’t haunt me, knowing that it is time, I will be moving on to another adventure. There’s nothing wrong with that.

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  24. Bravo to you. My dad died this past March (after a devastating illness) and I spent some moments with him that I know made us both uncomfotable, but ‘things’ needed to be done. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t have been able to manage them in my twenties. He died quite suddenly tho and I’m now grateful I was able to find the courage to be there when he needed me most.

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  25. I can relate to this on so many levels, not least of which is I’m just starting to evidence some of your grandpa’s symptoms…dang, probably need to mention it to my Urologist when I see him in a month. I got to stay over night with my 90 something grandpa the last couple of years of his life, once a week, never had to do the catheter gig however, but can definitely relate to the emotional catch in your gut, doing personal health care tasks as a 20 yr old. You are a good grand daughter. He was blessed to have you on his team. DM

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  26. I had to do wipe my dad’s butt with toilet paper. I remember saying to myself that there are some things a son should not have to do for a father. I had in mind that this should be done by a nurse or a paid caregiver. Now I wonder about this. Is it just a matter of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, or is it that we can relate better with our parents if we don’t have to spend our time with them on activities like these? If I was in my dad’s position would I prefer to have these tasks done by a stranger or a loved one? Personally, I would prefer a stranger but then again…maybe not.

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    • I hope to never have to do this for my father, strained relationship being what it is. My grandfather was not that hard. I loved him. He was a great grandpa. In the end, though, when I see someone suffering, no matter how unpleasant they are, I tend to just step in. I hate watching suffering and not doing something to ease it. And luck/karma being what it is, I will probably have to do something icky for my father. Life can be a bitch.

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  27. Oh, no! 😦 I wasn’t expecting THAT to be the end… to be HIS end! 😦 But how sweet that you got to have that quality time together, even if it was with you and him and his penis. (I meant for that to sound more lighthearted than it probably does.) :/ But seriously, as always, you handled yourself so well and preserving his dignity was so sweet. I’m sure he appreciated it more than you know. ❤

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  28. Pingback: My Article Read (1-7-2015) (1-8-2015) | My Daily Musing

  29. You got me again. So real. Too real? About to have a heart attack just thinking about it! I’m so not medical. Yet, I have put my professional hat on and done the job needed…with family…rough, yet satisfying. If we can’t share our time and talents with our loved ones, who then? OK, I’m better now 😀

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