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.


11 thoughts on “What the ‘wonderdrug’ is doing to my Dad

  1. Thoughts coming and even the occasional prayer. Sorry to hear of the situation your father finds himself in. I hope all the fond memories help to soothe your distress during these days. All the best, Rob

    JA: Yes they do, Rob and Joanna. Hearing such nice words from people I’ve never met is particularly helpful.

    At various times, I’ve thought about sending messages of condolence and encouragement to people I didn’t know. But somehow I always talked myself out of it, on the grounds that the lack of a personal connection would make my words of little value.

    Now I realise that the opposite holds true — a stranger’s message can count double. So thanks for yours.

    On the subject of prayers, I told Dad’s vicar that I ran screaming from his church at the age of eleven, never to return – but I still like to think I can recognise humanity when I see it, and he and his flock have shown plenty in recent days.

    With no hard feelings about my heretical escape act and devout atheism, he offered me the use of the same church for Dad’s service, though hopefully not for a while.

  2. My thoughts are with you and your Dad John. I know how much you love him and so will he.

    JA: Thanks Lindsay. The nurses at Hutt Hospital seem to love him too, and he them. I told him today it was a helluva stunt to pull just for a bit of female attention.

    Oh and you’ll be reassured to know, living in Eastbourne, that Hutt Hospital is the best place in the Wellington region if you’re planning to have a stroke.

  3. A jumble of words on behalf of you and your irrepressible dad — simply because coherent ones are hard to come by when the irrepressibility diminishes. (From someone whose dad is leaking marbles.)

    JA: Thanks DavidW. I’m hoping Dad’s marbles will return, but there’s no sign of that at the moment and we must be realistic.

    Fortunately he gave a lengthy radio interview recently, which was also videoed, so we’re very lucky to have that record of him at his best.

    Well, for a nonagenarian.

    He was asked for a short comment about the changes he’d witnessed or initiated in New Zealand banking, and answered with an 18 minute monologue of his time in the Pacific War.

    The young interviewing team didn’t have the heart to interrupt him, so left none the wiser about banking, but much clearer about the New Zealand Army’s activities at Guadalcanal.

  4. So sorry to read this. Your father is obviously a very strong man, I hope that he has enough strength to recover from the “wonder” drug and wish you and your family the strength to support him. Ele.

    JA: Thank you Ele. It’s sad to see my father in this state, but the experience is not all bad. You do meet some wonderful people and learn much about the human condition in hospitals.

  5. John, I don’t know what to say, except that my thoughts and prayers are with you and your father.

    JA: Thanks Maungakiekie. My family is just going through what all families go through sooner or later, and I’m thankful that in my case it’s later. To experience my first serious close family illness at 53 is pretty good going, I think.

  6. All my best John…I can understand how you must feel as my 88 yea old dad passed away on Waitangi day after the botched results of a lung biopsy robbed him of the few years he may have had left. make the most of the time he has left.

    JA: Thanks and sorry to hear that, James.

    It seems to me that organic mechanics are no different from other human technicians – very knowledgeable, very well-intentioned, usually successful, and sadly sometimes not.

    My respect for the people in the caring professions has been enhanced, not diminished, by this experienced. I think that will still apply even if we don’t get the dream outcome.

    I’m just thankful that there are people among us who are prepared to take on the life-and-death jobs, in the full knowledge that some of their mistakes may be fatal. I wouldn’t want that responsibility, and as long as they’re doing their best I salute them.

    I may have felt differently if Dad had been thirty or forty years younger, but the main emotion regarding his carers at the moment is gratitude.

  7. bloody physicians and their hell-bent desire to cause everyone to bleed, bloody heparin is bad enough, enoxaparin is worse, and I thought they had miracle drug in minimising superannuation payments in Warfarin, but it appears they may have outdone themselves.

    I hope your Dad improves enough to enjoy the later rounds with you and yours.

    JA: Thanks mort. I’m not going to pass judgement on the medical profession until I know more.

    What I do know, from personal experience, is that journalists are much less ethical or accurate than doctors, so I’m not going to automatically believe those articles I linked to.

    At the moment, Dad is getting very good care.

  8. This is not the place to debate the wisdom of doctors, even if the post host originated it. That aside, cheap shots I would have thought, blaming doctors for a 91-y-o having a stroke.

    JA: Just to be clear, flea, I’m not criticising Dad’s doctors at all. We’re very impressed and grateful for the care he’s receiving from the dedicated physicians and nurses at both Hutt and Wellington Hospitals.

    I’m particularly impressed by their efforts given his age and the many other demands on their time.

    (I think it helps that they like him and respect his determination.)

    Similarly, his family doctor is one of the best and most caring in the business – voted best in the Hutt Valley at least once.

    He has made dozens, if not hundreds of recommendations about my parents’ health over many years, which have undoubtedly contributed to their living to 91 and 87 not out.

    This latest decision obviously didn’t work out, but we have no hard feelings.

    I would, however, still like to question the wisdom of those who approved dabigatran. I use the word question literally, not accusingly – I’d just like to know the reasons why this has happened, and whether it could have been avoided.

    There are always some patients who do not respond to treatment the way the others do, and if Dad has drawn the short straw at the age of 91, so be it.

    But it would be good to confirm that the decision was indeed a wise one, all things considered.

  9. Oh John, what a wonderful chap your father sounds to be!

    I hope the nurse’s are keeping him comfortable.

    Are you all holding up O.K?

    Heartfelt hugs to and yours!

    JA: Thanks Trina. I’m doing fine. Mum less so. I’m due to fly to Adelaide to entertain an education conference dinner on Sunday, so I’ve told him he needs to be on his best behaviour till I get back.

    We’ve cancelled a week’s holiday in South Australia either side, but hopefully I can fulfill this longstanding booking.

  10. My thoughts are with you and your family during this very worrying and emotional time. Your father obviously has a wonderful sense of humour. I just hope he doesn’t suffer too much.

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