Going to Plan Z: When the Last Thing You Expect to Happen Happens

Mom and dad during their dating years.

My dad, George, has always been the hardest working person I know. I remember getting up every morning for school when I was a kid. My mom, Sue, would do everything she could to wake me up nicely: play music, talk softly, and turn on the bathroom heater for me so I wouldn’t be cold. She’d always end up practically dragging me out of bed because I just didn’t want to get up. I’ve never been a morning person. My dad was never there on those mornings.

He was already at work, leaving before the sun came up while I was still nestled snugly in my bed. I don’t ever remember him missing work for any reason. Ever. Snow, sleet, sunshine, sickness- nothing would keep him from working hard for his family.

My parents looked forward to their retirement years. They had always wanted to travel. When they got closer to retirement, their plan was to work a few more years, retire and see the world together. This was the “Plan A” they envisioned. They were only a few years away from this anticipated retirement plan and were really on the downhill slope when suddenly, in one single moment, everything changed. Our entire immediate family’s lives were irreparably altered.

I will never forget February 7, 2005. It was the morning after the Super Bowl. I was a little tired on the drive to work because my brother, Keith had hosted a family watch party the night before. Just as I arrived at work, my cell phone rang and it was Keith, who never called me in the mornings. He said they were taking dad to the hospital. He had passed out at work, had not regained consciousness, and they didn’t know what was wrong.

Instantly, I knew this was bad. Shaking and crying, I told my coworkers I had to go and I started driving to the hospital. My dad had always been perfectly healthy.  I kept replaying every possibility over in my mind. Maybe he just got hot in the carpentry shop where he worked. Maybe he was dehydrated. Maybe it was nothing. But deep down, I knew this was going to be bad. I never could have imagined…

Mom and dad's 40th anniversary, with our family.

When I arrived at the OU Medical Center emergency room, they led us to a “special” family room. I had been in this room before, to visit a family who had lost their toddler to a tragic accident. I knew this “special” family room was where they took you to tell you really bad news. My mom – an employee of the OU Health Science Center – knew the doctors on call. Two of them came in and sat down, wearing grave looks upon their faces, wringing their hands.

“Your husband has suffered an aortic dissection,” they explained to my mom.  “He needs emergency, open heart surgery, right now. You can see him if you’d like but we have to take him into surgery immediately. This is very serious. You should understand that there’s a 40% chance that he won’t even survive the surgery.”

My brother, Mom, and I went to his bedside. He lay there, unconscious, and unaware that we were with him. My brother started praying for him and we joined in. We knew this could very likely be the last time we ever saw him alive. That morning had begun like any other. There were no warning signs, no chest pains, nothing to let us know that a time bomb had been ticking away in his chest. Now, that bomb had exploded and there was nothing we could do but pray.

They whisked him away to surgery. We sat in the waiting room for many hours; praying, crying, and reeling from the shock of what had happened. Finally, the doctors emerged. He had survived the surgery to repair his thoracic aorta – the worst kind of tear. What I didn’t know then was that only 20% of patients survive the type of thoracic dissection he had suffered. Only time would tell if he would wake up and reveal the damage from the tear.

We lived the following days dazed, in a fog, unsure of what the future would hold for the leader of our family. They reduced the amount of sedation so he could wake up. He didn’t. My son Kyle was only 4 at the time. We didn’t want him to see his Papa in this condition so we recorded him saying “Papa, wake up, it’s Kyle. Papa wake up!” on my cell phone and played it over and over. He didn’t. I remember my sweet sister in law, Becky, whispering to my dad to “Open his baby hazels”. Finally, he did.

Mom and Dad kissing.

We were able to tell that he had suffered a stroke that would affect his left side. Slowly, after 7 months in various hospitals, through countless tests, setbacks, and immeasurable physical and speech therapy sessions, he was able to come home. My mom retired from her job at OU to become his primary care giver in their new reality. The strongest man I know is now in a wheel chair most of the time. Even though he may not be as physically powerful as he once was, he is still the strongest person I know. He overcame tremendous odds and survived such a horrific ordeal. When I tell people my dad suffered an aortic dissection, anyone with medical knowledge incredulously replies, “You mean, he’s still alive?” My mom ranks right up there in strength, too. I’m pretty sure she never knew she could be so tough and take such good care of my dad.

Years later, I look back at this event that derailed our lives and put us on a different path. I never could have guessed that this is how my parents would spend their golden years. Now, instead of traveling the world, they stay near home and take great pleasure in the giggles of their grandchildren.  Rather than wishing for the way things were or could have been, we try to focus on the fact that my dad is still here with us. We are living Plan Z, the last thing we ever would have planned for yet we are thankful for every single day. We know how close we came to those tearful moments in the emergency room being our final goodbye. Thank God, it wasn’t.

Back then, there was no way we could have known that this near death experience was on the horizon for my dad. You can’t plan for this kind of thing – except that you can. My parents had great medical insurance which paid most of the close to $1 million in medical bills. They had always lived frugally, investing in their retirement funds, and saving money. My dad qualified for disability and when he turned 65, Medicare kicked in with some extra help from a supplemental policy. They seemingly did everything right to survive what could have been a bankrupting financial crisis.

Sadly, even when you do everything right, the rules can change. My hardworking dad who had often gone to work with the sunrise, who had worked physical carpentry jobs since he was 15, had diligently paid into Medicare for 45 years. Several years ago, we began using home health care services to help lift some of the burden of direct care from my mom. They have been coming in several times a week to help with bathing, speech, and physical therapy. They are paid for by his Medicare benefits.

You’ve probably heard about the current government debates regarding Medicare and Social Security. To young whippersnappers like me, those issues can seem far off. However, when they impact your family, you know that the changes being made in Washington can eventually wind up right in your parents’ living room.

The home health company informed my mom recently that due to changes in Medicare benefits, they would no longer be able to help my dad. Even though he had been paying for this Medicare program for 45 years, they were changing things and could no longer help him after he had only used the benefits for 3 years. They said that because he wasn’t getting better or worse, there was nothing they could do for him. They said if he got worse, they could come back and resume services under Medicare benefits. I was aghast. What kind of logic is that?

Being a fighter like my dad, I got to work on my parents’ behalf and called the home health company for an explanation. They said they were sorry but that Medicare was cracking down. It never became clear to me why Medicare would “crack down” on people who worked hard their whole lives, did everything right, and paid a lot of money for benefits that would be taken away when they needed them most.

With help from my friend Danny, who knows how to navigate the health care system better than I did (thanks Danny!), we were able to get my dad enrolled with another home health care company who could provide services. Whew! My mom would not have to bear that burden alone. We know we may be on borrowed time and that this home health care company may not be able to help forever, especially with more Medicare cuts headed our way. My mom was informed that eventually, they may have to start paying for this care out of their pocket.

As I have started trying to get to the bottom of this injustice, I have been asked several times if my dad has long term care insurance. He didn’t. We didn’t even know he needed it. If we had known, we would have made sure he had it. Instead, he put his faith in the Medicare program to give him the care he needed and had paid for his entire working
life. Big mistake! I must urge you to look into long term care insurance. It basically pays for your care if you need special care or a nursing home. In this case, however, by the time we knew he needed it, the insurance was far too expensive to obtain.

With our government in crisis, none of the benefits any of us have paid for are guaranteed.  Just when my parents thought they had all of their bases covered by saving, working hard and having the right insurance policies, the rules changed.

I am outraged by this terrible unfairness that my parents are going through. If my story has impacted you or if you have a similar story, please let our leaders in Washington know. Today, the star of this story is my sweet dad. Tomorrow, it may be your dad, mom, or even you.

“First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

 Rev. Martin Niemoller




12 thoughts on “Going to Plan Z: When the Last Thing You Expect to Happen Happens”

  1. Thanks, Kenna and everyone else, too, for your kind words. It has definitely been the hardest thing we have ever been though. There have also been some blessings sprinkled in so we try to focus on those. Thanks for reading!

  2. Jennifer,

    This is an amazing post! I cried and cried when I read it. I’m sorry that this is happening to your family. It was wonderful, however, to read such an amazing story of true love. What an inspiration your parents must be to you. It’s such a blessing that you all get to know how much you mean to each other. Well done!

  3. This is a beautiful and compelling story. Thank you for sharing this experience. I hope your parents and family have many more happy years. Miss ya.

  4. I can’t think of a better person who could get the job done them you. Your parents are so blessed to have you. This sorry is so bitter sweet. So thankful for the outcome.

  5. Jennifer, This is a very touching story of your family’s ordeal. I remember the day this all started and how unreal it was that lives could change so much in a blink of an eye. I think that was one of the hardest things Wayne has gone through (trying to keep his little brother alive while waiting for the ambulance.) Your mom is a HERO to a lot of us. Love you guys, Aunt Mary

  6. Very well said. I think that most of our parents generation plan on medicare and toss aside the idea of needing insurance.

  7. Jen what a great job of documenting this time in our life. I agree Mom is now the strongest person I know. She has taken over for Dad during this time. Thank you for everything you have done as an advocate for Mom and Dad. Love Bubby

  8. After this touching and loving story about your Dad, we love you more than ever before. God Bless you, Jen. Love, Bob and Bena

  9. What a bitter sweet story. Your writing is impeccable and hit close to the heart. Good job, Jen!

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