14. Hurricane and Life Taken
One never prepares for a natural disaster and a medical emergency. We had both in just two short months.
10/10/2018 Hurricane Michael
Panama City Beach, Florida. Hurricane Michael slammed our hometown at 12:50 pm local time on Oct. 10th 2018 with little time to prepare. At that precise moment, we were one of many evacuees in Montgomery, Alabama watching the event unfold on the television screen.
Just two days prior on Monday Dec 8th, we were 90 miles away from home finishing up on my father’s final hearing test for his VA benefits in Niceville, Florida. As my father entered the doctors examining room, the TV started flashing and the emergency call went out. Mandatory Evacuation for Panama City Beach, Florida and all coastal areas in Bay county. Hurricane Michael was a category 3 and strengthening. I had a brief 30 minutes to make my plans for our evacuation and to ensure that my parents were going to be safe with me. I canceled my trip to Arizona and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where I was to be with my husband. Now I was planning on a long drive home with tasks including boarding up the house with our hurricane shutters, pack all essentials and get ready to leave by early the next morning.
The drive home was easy for us but the oncoming traffic fleeing the coast line was chaotic. Gas lines were long with police already onsite dealing with unruly drivers and people desperate to fill up their cars with gas. Passengers looked nervous in the heavy traffic which made me feel uneasy driving towards our home instead of away. I dropped off my parents with marching orders of what to pack and what to protect in their home before picking them up the next morning at 9 am.
Once at home, I found us one of the few remaining hotel rooms in Montgomery Alabama. Task number one done. Next was to fill up my tank with gas. Locally, all the gas stations were already out of gas. It took me 2.5 hours to find a gas station where I could fill up. It was 8 miles away but worth it.
Home by 8:30 pm, I packed a bag, gathered all paperwork, documents and files I knew I could not replace easily and then started getting some water supplies together thinking we may not have water for a while. Freezer and fridge full of water, gallons by the toilets, and gallons in the showers I was ready to tackle the biggest task. Putting up our hurricane shutters.
Tired and needing some sleep, I took a quick 3 hour nap. At 3 am, I had a cup of coffee while watching the weather channel for Hurricane Michael updates. It was a category 3 being drawn to the very warm waters of the Panama City Beach coastline. Weatherman Jim Cantore was now on the beach just a mile from our home on national TV. This is never a good sign for the locals. If Jim Cantore is near your home during a bad weather system, things are going to only get worse…… I braced myself, gathered up my strength and began preparing for putting up our hurricane shutters. Now 3 am, winds gusty and overcast with the bands of Hurricane Michael already making their presence, I spent the next 4 hours putting up the metal shutters one by one over all our windows and doors. Neighbors were in the same boat as I was. No help and everyone out for themselves.
Once done and exhausted, I took a shower, packed up the car and took a quick look around the outside of the house one more time to see if there was anything I had missed that could become a projectile with high winds. One more run through the inside of the house. I placed items up high off the ground thinking we would be flooded with a direct hit. So many thoughts went through my head of all the what ifs. My last task was to video the house and take a few photos. This I thought would be the last I would see of our house in good condition. Now to start the second part of the evacuation plan. I arrived at my parents to find the garage packed full of all the things they wanted to take with them. I could only laugh. With just an hour to try and get out of town, the wind had picked up a lot more and I was starting to get nervous. Patiently, I had my parents pick out one suitcase and one other item. It was a difficult moment. They could not understand why we could not take everything. I had to show them that there was no room in the car. Already, I had packed all the basics we would need. We had a hotel room and a town with all the comforts we would need just a few hours away. Off we went.
Our town of Panama City Beach was a Ghost town. Driving north to Montgomery Alabama, the towns of Samson, Elba and Troy were all boarded up and void of human life. On a Tuesday, all these towns should have been busy. This was very unsettling as they were 72, 95 and 125 miles inland respectively. This was getting more serious. The one good thing was that there was no traffic and no rain.
We made it to our hotel. The Comfort Inn and Suites on the East side of Montgomery in the early afternoon of October 9th, 2018. That evening we had dinner and spent the rest of the night glued to the weather channel watching Hurricane Michael now strengthen to a category 4. Sleep was difficult that night. Knowing that destruction was imminent and around the corner was a helpless feeling. Many of my friends that stayed behind were now sending me messages of how they wished they had left and that they were getting really frightened by the noise of the wind. Our neighbors who had decided to follow us out of town were just up the road. Nervous and unsure of what to expect, we decided to meet at Hacienda San Marcos close to Wetumpka, Alabama for lunch. The rain was coming down hard. It was noon on October 10th, 2018. Projected landfall was for 3 pm. We all ordered our meal, and watched the TV. Hurricane Michael was massive and strong. Now a full category 4, roofs were flying around, houses were now boats and dry land was underwater. There was no hope of our little island town surviving this and it was just getting started.
Before our eyes, Hurricane Michael took a small turn to the east and made landfall at 12:50 pm local time. Roofs were being torn off of homes and being blown around like empty boxes. The damage being shown on the last moments of the street cameras made us all lose our appetite. My dad said it perfectly. The food lost its taste. We were all dumb founded. Our communication with our friends that stayed behind was gone. All we could do was to sit there and watch the destruction. By now the rain had really started to come down around the restaurant. We paid our bills and slowly made our way back to the hotel in the heavy downpour of the outer bands of Hurricane Michael.
We stayed for 3 days in Montgomery Alabama. Wine and chips helped watch the devastation. On October 12th, we began our drive back home. Some communication with friends who stayed behind let us know that our two homes and condo had survived the hurricane. It did not seem possible, but we were thankful for the photos with proof that we were going back to standing homes.
All looked well along our ride home till we came to the border of Florida just south of Samson, Alabama. Crews began appearing who were cutting trees and moving them off the roads. Traffic was light. The closer we got to our town, the more and more we could see the wind destruction. Trees on houses, trees on cars. We were only 20 minutes from our home which is on an island. Upon arriving at West Bay bridge, one of three access points to our home, only local residents with drivers license showing they lived in town were allowed across the bridge. Security was tight. Lines were long and people were anxious.
Once across the bridge, we saw little destruction. Just a few trees down here and there. My father decided to stay with me so we spent an hour reviewing my parents home and getting my mother situated. No leaks in the roof and no damage to the house. They had running water but no electricity. We set up the flashlights and a battery radio. My father and I headed to our home. The neighborhood had some trees down but the fences were all over the place. Lakes, roads, yards were littered with white fence pieces and bits. Arriving at the house, we were delighted that it looked intact. An hour later, we found little to no damage. We took a few of the metal hurricane shutters off to let in some light. No water and no electricity. We used our pool for toilet flushing and neighborhood jump and rinse. The weather had turned warm and muggy. Not great for clean up recovery!
The next few days and weeks we experienced looting around our neighborhood and local stores. We became a tight knit community watching out for vandals who started moving into the half built homes and taking advantage of the total darkness to break into cars and empty homes.
Our local coffee shop, The Pour, where my father and I had played chess twice a week did not survive. That was disappointing. I went online and bought a chess set so we could start playing at home.
Just 6 days after Hurricane Michael hit, my husband Daq returned home. Just an hour after his arrival, water, electricity and cable TV were up and running. He missed all the discomforts of our 8 day ordeal. For 3 days he helped with getting our few items that were damaged at the house repaired and pitched in to help others in the neighborhood repair roofs, fences, fallen trees and other minor items.
My father returned to my house on October 19th. For the next few days he helped me pick up Hurricane relief items from Woodlawn United Methodist Church. We made the slow hour long 11 mile drive across Hathaway Bridge to Panama City, Florida. There we would find those needing clothing, food, toiletries, blankets, tarps and more. We did this 4-5 times each day. People would cry, hug us and give us thanks for bringing them hope. It never got easier. Seeing how just 10 miles down the road life was so different made us realize how lucky we really were. The next two weeks were much of the same.
On October 26th, while taking my father over to his house to pick up some extra belongings, he brings a very cherished pillow my daughter Rachelle had made for her grandfather a few years back. It reads, “Vovo, I love you to the Moon and back.” Vovo is the Portuguese word for grandfather. I found this adorable and sent a text message to my daughter living in Dublin Ireland saying, “Look what is important to Vovo. He brought this over to sleep with every night.”
The continued efforts to help those who lost everything in the Hurricane took up all of our daylight hours. Once dusk hit around 5 pm, we would make a bite to eat then watch shows of Benny Hill and other British comedy shows that my father enjoyed watching.
Halloween day, October 31st, the chess game arrives. Only one game will be played on this set. My father had been starting to mix up the pieces and their moves in the past few games back in September. During our last game he seemed very un-enthused and confused. I was getting concerned about his memory and possible issues that may be affecting his daily lifestyle. I went to my first support group meeting at a local memory care unit that was newly constructed just around the corner from our house. The information and people would prove to be very useful in the weeks to come.
Time was approaching for the pre-planned 20th anniversary party for our neighbors. Now was a great time to forget our worries and have a little fun. With all the party stores and supplies depleted due to the Hurricane, I became very resourceful and creative with items I already had at home and bought every bit of wrapping tissue paper to make loads of hanging colorful flowers for decoration in our house. Party was a huge success on the evening of November 9th, 2018.
On November 17th, the weather was cold but calm. I took my father out for a ride out on the bay on the Tritoon. I noticed something wrong with his back. He was leaning backward in a very funny way. He said he was just stiff. We headed home after just an hour on the water. His appetite was gone and I noticed he was sitting and sleeping a lot more.
For the next four days, my dad returns home and Daq is back home. We go out to lunch with my father and Daq is shocked at how much my father has changed in just a few days. He notices a change in his voice and also his behavior. My father has started eating less and my mother says he is not drinking coffee any more.
On Thanksgiving Day, November 22 we go out for lunch with our neighbors to Grand Marlin. My dad is walking slow but is now standing upright. He seems like his normal self again. Daq is back at work and my father is back at home with me.
On November 23rd, my father seems different and is now really bent backwards and cannot stand upright. He shuffles a lot and has trouble walking. I send Daq a text message saying that I think my father either fell or has had a stroke. Something is just not right. I decide to not join Daq in Arizona while he is visiting his parents. My gut told me to stay home and watch after my dad.
November 24th. My father looks sore. He says he is fine but tired. He sleeps a lot throughout the day.
November 29th. It’s my mothers birthday. My father has been back at his house for 4 days with my mother. I get a call from my father around 7 am. He says that my mother wants to take him to the hospital. I ask why. He replies that she thinks something is wrong with him. Immediately I hear my mother get on the phone and say that something is terribly wrong with my father and that we need to take him to the hospital. With very little information, I rush over to pick them up. My father now is really bent out of shape. He is unsteady and cannot stand on his own. He is bent so far backwards that his eyes cannot see the floor. I help him out to the car and sit him in the front seat. With my mother in the car, we head to the doctors office. There, after the normal hour wait, my father is given some medicine for a bad ear infection and a referral for Physical Therapy treatment. My father is looking blank and not making sense. My concerns are becoming alarmingly heightened.
November 30th. We find the Therapy Session in a makeshift bus in front of a daycare ruined by hurricane. It is like a war zone. The generator is not working, the seats have been removed and replaced with two massage tables, a stationary bike and a small work table with a chair, computer and paperwork. The therapist says his back is full of knots from shoulders to buttocks. Very unusual. My father does not seem relaxed as he is very ticklish and cannot sit still. This session is repeated three days later. During this time, he does not seem to get better and now sleeps more and is saying his back hurts.
December 4th. We celebrate my birthday with Daq back in town. We all drive together to Rosemary Beach and have lunch at the Tapas Restaurant. My father is in good spirits, is walking a bit better even though his back is still crooked. His voice appears to be weak and different.
December 5th. I go to pick up my father. This will be the last time he is at his house. My mother walks me to the car and says that something is not right with him. She cannot explain, but I take note and start watching more carefully. He sleeps a lot and does not want to walk around much. His eating is now minimal as it has been for the last two weeks and he still does not want his coffee.
December 6th. I notice that his balance is really bad and he cannot stand well on his own. I need some advice from my daughter Rachelle in Dublin, Ireland. Allowing her to hear and see her grandfather online as we have done every week for the last couple of years will allow another set of ears and eyes to tell me what changes are noticeable. We do a video chat. Rachelle notices that he is not quite there. Not making sense. His Voice sounds very different. Flatter and weaker. Minutes after the video chat, my father asks me when we were going to talk to Rachelle. I am startled. This is the first time I notice a complete memory block in just a matter of minutes. A few hours later, I become aware of a behavior I had never heard of before. Sun downers. As dusk approached, he was getting confused with where his room was in the house and started flipping switches every two minutes saying good morning, good night, dressing and undressing himself . Not knowing what to do nor what this behavior was at this point, I started shutting off the lights (not the right move) and turning down the sound on the TV. I thought this would calm him down. The behavior just became that much more erratic. Puzzled and now really worried, I called a few friends. They explained a few things to me but my next door neighbor said to go ahead and take him to the ER (Emergency Room) just down the road from us to do some tests to see if had had a stroke or was going through some major change with Dementia. I talk him into getting dressed and had to call my neighbor over to help me get him into the car. He was not standing on his own and he was very unsteady on his feet. We left the house at 8 pm. A multitude of tests were run over the next few hours. The blood work was going to take some time since the aftermath of the Hurricane had left only one facility with the machines to test the blood work. That facility was an hour away. After midnight, we had all the test results back. Nothing was found.
December 7. My father is sleeping a lot throughout the day. I put a heating pad on his shoulders and Chamomile essential oil. He is much calmer and is resting well on Daq’s lazy boy. I go ahead and set up in home Care so he can have PT (Physical Therapy), OT (Occupational Therapy), Speech Therapy and a Diet plan. Later in the day my father fell onto the bed twice while I was helping him get up to go to the bathroom and to get dressed. With my growing concerns, I called Daq around 11 pm and asked him to cut his trip short to come home. Looking after and moving my father alone was getting too difficult.
Dec 8. 3 a.m. After little to no sleep over the last few nights, I went to take a quick nap around midnight. I got up at 3 and went to see how my father was doing. I found him on the floor naked in his bedroom trying to move around and get up. He said he was not injured but could not seem to get up off the floor. I tried to roll him over and get him up but he was cold and not able to move on his own. I called the emergency service number 911. Three firefighters showed up within minutes. They helped him to the bathroom, dressed him and helped me move the mattress into the living room so he would not fall out of bed. Now he was not able to walk on his own. Laying on the mattress, he was acting very lost and like a child rubbing head on pillow while on all fours.
At 8 am we had a house full of medical experts and my neighbors. My mother arrived around 9 am and Daq arrived at 11 am. After many tests, the medical experts told us that my father’s Dementia was in the later stages. He had lost 15 pounds already. My friend Donna had come over earlier in the morning and returned home to bring over a walker she had for my father to use. Around 6 pm, my father was doing better, talking a bit and walking around our house with the walker. Things seemed to be improving once again.
The memory care unit, Seagrass that is close to our house, had a few caregivers that had come over to watch my father. They suggested we have one of them stay the night to watch my father to give us some much needed rest. Karen arrives at 10 pm and stays until 6 am.
Dec 9. Karen says my father’s dementia is in the late stage. He was fidgety and confused all night. Acting like a toddler rubbing head in pillow while on all fours. She suggests that we move him into Seagrass memory care unit for 3 days of respite care to give us some relief and for them to watch him more closely. We talk this over as a family. It is a difficult decision to make as my father had always told me that he did not want to be placed in a nursing home of any sort. We had no choice. There were no caregivers who could come to our house after the hurricane as many of them had lost their homes or had no job so 90% had left the area. The tough decision was made to send my dad for 3 days to the memory care unit.
We took my dad to the Seagrass Memory Unit just a half mile from our house. We arrive, have lunch and left without saying goodbye. He went with nurse to watch Gone with the Wind without knowing we were even with him. His memory had really gone.
I sent my sister Renee in Hong Kong a message letting her know of all the changes happening. She quickly changed her Christmas arrival plans and arrived on the 11th, a few weeks ahead of schedule.
Dec 12. My sister Renee and I head over to see our father. I walked in first and greeted him. His look was blank but he politely said good morning. Immediately, his head turned to the right, he saw my sister and said, “Renee, you made it.” I was shocked. He felt her presence and recognized her. Dementia had really set in. After a few minutes, Daq arrived, we got my father ready and we headed over to the Neurologist for his appointment. Dementia and also Parkinson's were what the doctor found.. Medication prescribed.
Dec 13. I was up early at 5:00. I was having my coffee when the Seagrass memory care facility called. They ask me if my father had ever had any stomach seizures. I said not to my knowledge. Within minutes, I had changed clothes and was in the car. Daq followed behind me by a few minutes. When I arrived, my poor father was melted down into the chair with his stomach moving around like there was an alien inside trying to get out. I ask him if he hurts. His reply is no. I then ask him if he is OK. His reply again, no. Daq walks in and within a few seconds, my father’s legs start to cramp up. He looks straight into my eyes and says, “Genevieve, Genevieve, I’m going, I’m going I’m going.” I continue to hold his hand and talk to him while the leg cramp creeps up into his torso and arms and finally into his face. I call this a full body Charlie Horse. I lasted about 30 seconds, but it felt like forever. This occurred around 7:30 a.m. The nurses at the memory care call the Ambulance. I ride with my father in the ambulance when he has another seizure on the way to the hospital. While tests were being done, Daq went to pick up my mother and sister and inform them of the mornings events.
I need to remind you that we had been hit hard by Hurricane Michael just 2 months prior. Of the 3 hospitals in our city, only one survived and it was only half operational. The hospital was busting at the seams with patients in every room, in the hallways all the while workers trying to repair the half of the hospital that was severely damaged.
For 3 hours, doctors, physically and via TV monitors looked in on my father. He was in a coma seemed to be in pain by the look on his face. Medications were administered which seem to help at first. Adavin & Haldal for calming. Keppra for Seizures.
My brother in law David was being picked up at the airport by Daq. He had flown in from Australia once hearing that my father was not doing well. They were only at the hospital for a few minutes when we are told that m y father must be moved to another hospital as there was nothing else they could do for him. It was a choice of Atlanta Georgia, Tallahassee Florida or Orlando Florida. I about choked. They were all hours away and they wanted to fly him in the medivac helicopter…. I really did not know what to say. The nurses said they would give me a few minutes to decide.
As I am going through the logistics and best options for us on which hospital to go to, the doctor comes up to me and says that there is an available room just a little over an hour down the road in Destin at the Fort Walton Hospital. We sign the paperwork . I take the 90 minute ambulance emergency ride with my father, this time with no seizures. Daq, my mother, sister and brother in law go for lunch and arrive at the Fort Walton Hospital, my father and I in his private room being looked after by the hospital staff.
For the next 4 days, we all take turns for a walk, fresh air and food. Someone is always with my father in his room. On Dec 16, my father‘s condition is not improving and never will. With all the tests done, doctors say my father is the “special” patient one does not want to be. There are no answers and no one can explain what has happened nor why it happened. All the test show he is fine! Now that is one for the books.
As I talked to my father and had my daughter talked to him over the phone, the last tough decision was made on Dec 16, 2018. We would start my father on Comfort Care to allow him to pass on peacefully. We all took this decision with pain and love. I know that sounds crazy, but my father had been a pin cushion and a lab rat for a week now with no answers and no hope. All food and fluids were ceased and a 72 hour Fentanyl patch was placed on his back. We were told the process would take a few days.
On Dec 17, the nurse and head doctor entered the room. I was alone with my father. I was told that the hospital was not able to keep my father and that the best choice would be for us to set up Hospice at our home. The hospital was getting too many calls for other patients that were in need of the care. Politely, they were saying there was no hope for my dad.
I called everyone and asked them to make arrangements to get Hospice over to the house to get the room ready for us to arrive the next day. Prior to leaving, a new Fentanyl patch was placed on my fathers back. More Adavine was administered. Discharge papers were signed and the transportation was ordered. Our ride was to be in between emergencies so luckily we were on the road by 10:30 putting us at home at noon.
Having my father back at home was bittersweet. Because there were no comfort caregivers around, the nurse gave Daq and my brother-in law a crash course on drugs, care etc. for that evening and the next morning. They said the signs were there that showed my father would only be around for another day, if even that. The next morning I went in to see my dad. The smell in the room told me it would be soon.
We all had our last moments with him individually throughout the morning. Daq and my brother-in law went out for lunch at around noon. Around 12:30, I went in to have a quick chat with my dad. Minutes later, my mother went in to see him. She called my sister and I from the doorway. My sister went in first. After a minute, she came out and said
“ I think he is gone.” I walked in knowing. I watched for breathing or movement. None. We timed his passing and last breathe at 12:50 pm, Dec 19, 2018, one day after his 84th birthday.
Peacefully, he was with us to his last moments. The hospice nurses arrived to bathe and dress him after the obligatory one hour wait. My mother stayed with him the whole time.
It was difficult to see him being wheeled away by the undertakers from the funeral home. They were in suits and my father covered in a white sheet. He was wheeled through our home out into the driveway into the funeral hearse with us following behind him. Our last goodbye.
Again, the force of Hurricane Michael devastated our area. There was only one funeral home left close by. My father was kept in the funeral home morgue for over a month as the wait list for cremations was long. One can only imagine. Finally the day came for the cremation, a day that would be the second but not the last of heartbreaking emotions. We had a table set up with photos, flowers and I had created a playlist of all my father’s favorite songs.
A few days later, on a cold, very windy day, we took my fathers ashes out on the boat to the bay and allowed him to return to mother nature. Letting go of the very heavy box of ashes was an emotional weight I did not expect to feel. My first instinct was to jump into the water to save him. I had to take a deep breathe. I said I love you and thought to myself, “Now you are free.”
Through it all, family and friends were there all along to each help my father during his last difficult 2 months. Even those friends that were his other family from his Civil War Re-enacting days, they too were there in spirit every step of the way.
To my wonderful father and friend. I’m glad we were all there when you needed us most. You will forever live in our hearts.