"My Mother’s Head Is So Hard…": First-Hand Lessons From a Fall

Over the past three years, I have written several blogs about preventing falls in the home. (The most recent blog was posted on September 20, 2012, to honor National Falls Prevention Awareness Day. To read that blog, click here: National Falls Prevention Awareness Day).

After years of researching information for Health & Safety blogs, I thought I knew everything. I was wrong…and I’d like share what I learned when a happy event turned to tragedy for my family.

On December 1, 2012, my parents finally moved from California to North Carolina to be nearer to us. (And by near, I mean two blocks away, which was great because my mother is a fantastic person.)

On December 3, while my mom and I were carrying bags of new towels and floor mats into her new house, up three small steps from the garage, she lost her balance and fell backwards—straight onto her head on the concrete floor.

The nightmare of the past two weeks has been…educational. And during long days spent in the ICU, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the event itself, and to gather lessons for preventing and dealing with a fall, things I don’t recall reading anywhere else.

  • Don’t load yourself up with packages. My mom and I each were carrying two bags—one in each hand, which means that neither one of us could hold onto the handrail. One of the bags my mom was carrying was over-sized, and the weight of it dragged her backwards. I think back to my personal strategy of trying to get all the grocery bags out of the car in the fewest number of trips, and I realize that I was putting myself at risk. Now I know:  Better more trips back and forth to the car than a single trip to the hospital.
  • If you witness the accident, call 9-1-1 yourself. I saw the accident happen, and then I saw my mother lying unconscious at the base of the stairs. I yelled into the house for another person to call 9-1-1 as I crouched by my mother’s side. Because no one else knew what happened, I started trying to explain what happened, valuable time that could have been used talking to the 9-1-1 operator. Even though it may mean leaving the victim’s side for a moment, get the phone and call 9-1-1 yourself.
  • If a fall results in any head injury–even what might look like just a bump–call 9-1-1…no matter what anyone says. After my mother regained consciousness, she didn’t understand why she needed to go to the hospital. Of course, she didn’t know where she was, what my name was, or why she was lying down in the garage, either. It just proves that a damaged brain isn’t a rational brain. Call 9-1-1, even if the victim says she is fine, and even if others in the house think it is not necessary. After decades of taking orders from my mom, my stepdad heard her say she didn’t want to go to the hospital and told me to cancel the ambulance. (He changed his mind when my mom looked straight at him and asked where her husband was.)
  • Be prepared to give lots of information on the phone.Maybe I’ve seen too many bad TV shows, but I just assumed that calling 9-1-1 was as simple as saying “Send help immediately.” The operator will want to know:
    • your name;
    • the address;
    • the victim’s name, age, date of birth, and relation to you;
    • details of how the injury occurred;
    • the current physical status of the victim: Is she breathing…is there blood…any obvious broken bones?
    • The current mental status of the victim: Is she conscious…does she know where she is…is she talking…does she report any pain?
    • The operator will also stay on the phone with you until the EMS workers arrive. You will be given specific instructions (such as: Don’t allow the victim to move; lock dogs away in another room, etc.), and you will have to give periodic updates: Is the victim still breathing…still unconscious? It took a mere 10 minutes for help to arrive at our remote home, but it felt like forever on the phone.
  • Stay calm. After the call to 9-1-1, the fire squad showed up first, followed quickly by EMS workers. Each time, I was asked a lot of questions about my mother, her medical history, and the accident. Be prepared to say the same stuff over and over again (e.g., What is her birthdate? Is she allergic to any medications?). Don’t get upset—this is part of the process.
  • Learn everything you can about your loved one’s medical history and medications…and carry a list of your own medications with you in your wallet. Hospital staff need to know which medications the victim is taking, what dosage, and what times of day. Thankfully, my mother is generally healthy and was only on two medications. I had to track them down before going to the hospital, and the job would have been more difficult if she kept some bottles in her handbag, some in the bathroom, some in the kitchen, etc.
  • Assign one ride-along. One person can travel to the hospital with the EMS crew. In our case, that was my stepfather. I went back to the house to find my mother’s medications, my stepdad’s medications (in case we were at the hospital for hours), and to arrange for friends to watch after our pets.
  • Bring a pad of paper and a pen to the hospital. Take notes when the doctors and nurses give you a report…have everyone you talk with write down their names and departments for future reference…write down any questions you think of so your brain doesn’t blank out when the doctor is right there in front of you. If your loved one will be in ICU, ask for the direct line to the nursing station so that you don’t have to go through the general hospital switchboard each time you call. In times of stress, memory fails, so write down everything.
  • Invest in a walker for after the hospital. Trained in the fine art of shopping and mall-walking, my mother used to be fast. The brain injury has left her off-balance and unsure on her feet. She is grateful to have walker to help her get around more independently now.

We discovered that my mother’s skull had fractured in two places, she had a brain bleed at the site of the fractures, another brain bleed at the front of her brain where the brain whiplashed against the front of the skull (a contrecoup injury), and a large gash in her scalp. My mom spent three days in ICU, and another day in the neurological ward before coming home. Since then, we’ve returned to the ER twice because her symptoms got worse and worrisome. After the latest hospital run, we were told that she has “Post Concussion Syndrome,” a disorder commonly found in professional football players who sustain lots of hard hits to the head.

We’re not sure when my mother will be back to “normal.” We’re lucky in that her memory seems fine and her personality is the same as before the accident. She is unsteady on her feet, has big headaches, is unable to concentrate for very long, and is very easily fatigued.

It could have been much worse, and it was pretty close to being fatal. And do you know what my last words to my mom would have been? “Are you sure you can handle that big bag, Mom?” Seriously. I saw that it was too big for her, and I asked. She reassured me that she could handle it. In 20/20 hindsight, I shouldn’t have asked. I should have simply taken the bag from her and allowed her to walk up the steps without the encumbrance. That’s my final lesson: If you have to err at all, err on the side of being over-protective. I don’t think anyone has died from an abundance of caution.

Wishing you all a safe and healthy holiday season!

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