What the ‘wonderdrug’ is doing to my Dad

You may have seen this article in the last Sunday Star-Times about the lethal side-effects of new blood thinning ‘wonderdrug’ Pradaxa (AKA dabigatran).

In today’s edition, there’s another story of a Pradaxa victim in Tauranga fighting for his life.

Sadly, I have a good idea of what this man and his family are going through. 

The reason I haven’t been blogging is that for the last three weeks, my 91 year old dad has been fighting the same fight, after taking the same drug. 

A couple of nights ago, a doctor told us he’d be surprised if Dad had more than a few hours to live.

There’s only so much battering a 91 year old body can take from the combined effects of a bad stroke, pneumonia, blood loss, incontinence, bed sores, and the repeated invasions of various body parts by various tubes.

All caused by a ‘wonderdrug’, taken once.

While the transfusion machine pumped the fresh blood of some generous unknown donor into the repeatedly punctured veins of his purply-black arm, we called in the family, gathered round his bed, and waited.

With insight gained from his wife who nurses the dying, the young registrar predicted that the life or death call would be made by Dad himself.

Luckily, some time in the wee small hours, he chose life. Late the next morning, oblivious to our anxiety, he awoke refreshed from the deepest sleep he’d had in weeks.

Another bullet dodged.

I told him the doctors were surprised he was still with us. His raspy, oxygen-assisted response was inspirational and unforgettable.

As himself, my father was not the gloating type. He was a gentle man in every sense.

But of late, with his slim reserves of expressive energy, he’s learnt to cut to the chase. With all the force he could muster, he grunted majestically (and somewhat Muldoonishly):

“Heh … heh … heh … the … doctors … don’t … know … me!”

Some med students trooped past his room. I explained to Dad that he was now in a teaching hospital (Wellington, having been transferred from Hutt in an ambulance the previous day).

Screwing his face into a wink, he muttered:

“We’ll … teach … the … doctors!”

Dad started teaching doctors about the will to live in 1919. For him, the Twenties were more wheezing than Roaring.

It was by no means certain that his weedy, sunken-chested, asthmatic body would make it through to enjoy the Great Depression.

He first listened to his beloved All Blacks on the radio in 1928 — a ritual I was to repeat at the same age in 1967, propped up in his and Mum’s bed.

To suggest in the 1920s that this sickly kid would one day watch his team contest the 2011 Rugby World Cup would be to invite admission to one of Her Majesty’s lunatic asylums.

Yet for the best part of 91 years — until 6.30am on 5 September 2011 — Dad was true to his name: Vivian — full of life. 

On his 90th birthday he invited everyone back for his 100th, and fully intended to keep the appointment.

His gym-going was as religious as his church-going.

This past summer, he came second in the over 90s section of a Hutt Valley bowls tournament. (The other entrant was just too good.)

As he recently wrote in a book about his 43 years with the BNZ (originally written just for family, but now happily purchased by 400 past and present bankers), “I may have had to discard my rugby ball and tennis racquet, but I’ve still got my marbles.” 

And he did. A few months ago, he published that book. Now he can’t read one.

Two weeks ago, he managed to watch half of the All Blacks-Tonga match before drifting off, but not before confidently asserting that the final score would be 42-9.

(He was wrong. It was 41-10.)

Last night, he couldn’t be bothered watching the All Blacks play France on the TV staring him in the face.

One little dose of the ‘wonderdrug’ was all it took. One pill.

On the Wednesday, he was taken off his warfarin. At 5.30pm, he swallowed his first and only dose of dabigatran. By 9.30pm, he was feeling so weird and disoriented that Mum had to call an ambulance.

The next day, his doctor put him back on his warfarin, but by then the ‘wonderdrug’ had done its worst.

At Father’s Day dinner on the Sunday, he told me he’d “had a bit of a setback”, the first I heard of the above.

The next morning, Mum awoke to the thump-thump of Dad hitting his head on the bedside furniture, and his body flopping on the floor. 

He’d had two small strokes in 1998 and 2005. But this was a biggie. Into Hutt Hospital by ambulance, fortunately to the Wellington region’s only dedicated stroke unit.

And the staff are dedicated too. They just can’t be there all the time. Neither, sadly, can we.

He can’t swallow, so has to be fed through a tube. In the delirium brought on by the stroke, he keeps trying to pull the tube out, and all too often succeeds.

For the last few days we thought we had him tamed, but this morning when the watching nurse was distracted, he yanked it out again.

Each time he does this, he has to endure having a long plastic tube inserted up his nose and down his throat into what we hope is his stomach, but is sometimes his lungs. Then they have to do it again. Once it came out his mouth by mistake.

Every time they put the tube back in, he has to be X-rayed to check the food is going into the right cavity.

I’ll spare you the details of the other orifices. Suffice it to say that, at times like this, it’s a shame we have so many.

We don’t know how this story will end, or when.

If you can spare a thought for a 91 year old man who’s led a good life, his sub-conscious would, I think, be pleased to hear from you.