16 March 2015

Making Decisions: When To Call For Help. I Do The Best I Can.

Making Decisions

Making Decisions

We had a wonderful time in Bucks County, but there was an incident that occurred early Sunday morning that was frightening and that raised a fundamental question:  when to ask for help and how to make good decisions under great pressure when someone else's life is involved.

Around 3 a.m., I was shaken awake by Maria, she was very upset, she could barely speak. She said she had been in great pain for several hours, and it was getting worse. She didn't want to wake me up, but she felt she had to. She seemed frantic.

Groggy, I got up and saw her in more discomfort and pain than I had ever seen her. It was serious, she had been up for some time but was in such unbearable pain. I could see that she was getting very worried. Maria is a stoic about health, she rarely, if ever goes to a doctor or feels poorly. And she never ever complains when things hurt.

I got dressed in a hurry. Be prepared, I told myself.

Essentially, Maria was asking me for help. She wasn't sure what to do, the pain was getting worse. I had some decisions to make.  Our host, a good friend, was in an adjoining room sleeping. She is hearing impaired, and I was very reluctant to go barging into her bedroom and shake her awake, I thought it would scare the hell out of her. I had to decide quickly how sick Maria seemed, whether to call 911, or to drive Maria to a hospital or emergency center. There was none nearby that I knew of and I was in a strange place far from home with no sense of where to go for help.

It was difficult to see Maria in so much pain, and she was deteriorating, she wasn't in a position to decide for  herself what to do. But she said she thought she might need help, the pain was the worst she had ever felt. I wanted to do right by her. I could not imagine living with the knowledge I had failed her in such a profound way.

I don't want to go into the details of Maria's symptoms, for the sake of her privacy. We had stopped at a franchise restaurant in New Jersey on the way to Pennsylvania and she'd had a salad, it occurred to both of us that this illness might be food poisoning. I grabbed my Ipad and checked some symptoms on a medical website. I also thought of appendicitis, which can be fatal if not treated quickly. I was very reluctant to call an ambulance in a strange place. I admit the thought of dealing with a hospital in another state, keeping us away from the farm for perhaps days was on my mind.

How awful that we have to think of insurance before we think of our very survival.

Her symptoms matched a number of different things, but the food poisoning seemed  the mostly likely to me. And to her.  I remember thinking I had to remain very calm, if I got visibly upset that could frighten her and make things much worse. I wanted her to see confidence and calm in my face. I told her to walk with me, take some water, that she was okay, she would be all right. I wanted her to look at me and see that message, not panic or confusion.

I felt her forehead, which was dry and normal. She was not sweating, she was not disoriented, she was coherent. The pain ebbed and flowed, got better, then worse, then better again.  When it was worse, it was very bad. She could not sit still, hold down fluids or food. I wondered how she could have spent several hours like that without waking me up. That's how I knew it was serious. She woke me up.

The symptoms didn't quite fit appendicitis. I decided to give it 15 minutes and set the timer on my phone. If she was not visibly better in 15 minutes, I would call an ambulance and wake up our host. I thought the safe and wise decision was to call an ambulance; first, because she was in do much pain and distress, and then,  because it was safe and sensible. Twice, I reached for the phone to make the call. I thought I would surely be canceling my book talk that afternoon, leaving 150 people and the dog therapy group that organized the talk in the lurch.

I wondered if I could throw her into the car and drive all night to get home, there was no sense to it, it was just a powerful instinct. If she was really sick, I wanted us to be home on the farm, near our friends.

I got Maria to take some water – she was very strong, brave and clear. We walked around the room in circles, had more water. I asked her to breathe deeply and slowly – I wanted to occupy her mind, help her to calm, give her body time to work things out. If it was food poisoning, that would happen.  She began to get better, the pain less frequent, less intense. Ten minutes into my 15 minute plan, she was able to lie down and also begin to feel normal. There was pain, but it was decreasing.

In another ten minutes, the pain was gone and she was asleep.  Her ordeal had lasted about five hours. It was almost dawn. We were both able to attend the talk and dinner scheduled for that night, although she was weak and very tired for 24 hours. She slept for five or six hours.

I am not certain if I made the right decisions or not. In retrospect, I think I was perhaps taking too big a risk by not calling an ambulance right away. If we had guessed wrong…

If I had called an ambulance, the worst thing that might have happened would have been for the paramedics to decide that they were not needed, and leave. Wasn't that was First Responders do? Wouldn't I would tell any person to call 911 if they were in extreme pain? I've done it more than once.

And it was not a frivolous thing. On the other hand, I did trust my instincts – and so did she. When she first woke me up, I think we both believed I should call 911 and we would end up in a hospital. But giving it some time began to resolve the situation and make it clear. I am no physician, and I never play doctor or diagnose people (or animals) online,  but there was helpful information readily available. Information wants to be free.

There was something else on my mind. I have diabetes 2 and heart disease. In both cases, I did not get help and in both cases, my life was threatened, in one case very nearly lost. The lesson for me was to seek out qualified help and not make judgments and decisions for myself. People cannot diagnose themselves, on Facebook or anywhere else. Many have paid with their lives trying. Was I doing the same thing with Maria and with her life? Since Sunday morning, that has haunted me and I don't really have an answer for it, it is a grey question, not a black-and-white one.

And for me, so much of life is grey, the world around me is increasingly black-and-white.

How powerful an experience to see someone you love suffer so acutely and be helpless to stop it.  And to have so much responsibility. I actually fantasized having a doctor walk in the room and tell me what to do. Yet I could help and did help and in many ways, the right decision was perhaps made. Maria feels it was the right decision, she is more certain than me.

Ultimately decisions rest on instincts, the ability to trust one's self, to say calm, keep perspective and be prepared to react quickly. Strength to me is not believing I know everything, but that I know little. Knowing when to call for help is one of life's most profound decisions, and it is not as clear cut a thing as the movies and TV shows would have us believe.

I am a lucky person and a grateful one that the person I love so much is walking around, telling me what to do, writing on her blog, planning her beautiful quilts for tomorrow. We are not God, we cannot always know what to do.

We can only do the best we can. I will leave it there, that is the boundary. That, in some ways, is a mantra for me, the root of compassion and self-awareness.


Posted in General

How To Listen To A Writer Talk

How To Listen To A Writer Talk

How To Listen To A Writer Talk

Writer's talks can get pretty long-winded, Ashley has figured out how to do it. Sunday night, she and her mom and a bunch of other nice people paid to have dinner with me in Yardley, Pa. to benefit a dog therapy group. Mid-way through,  Ashley opened  one of my books, "The Dogs Of Bedlam Farm," and this, I thought is the perfect way to survive a windbag writer, just open one of his or her books and read it. It worked for both of us.

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Back To Manure Mountain

Back To Manure Mountain

Back To Manure Mountain

We call it Manure Mountain now, it is where we stack the manure all winter, when the animals can't move around much. Our friend Scott Carrino has dibs on the very good donkey manure, he wants it for the gardens on his farm. He says he will come and get it soon. I told him he better come get it soon, it will be big enough to ski on. The snow is beginning to recede, leaving a vast mud swamp behind. The mud and manure make a rich brew.

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Gray Hen On The Frozen Frost Free

Gray Hen On The Frozen Frost-Free

Gray Hen On The Frozen Frost-Free

The gray hen did not get out much this winter, but she is walking about and she loves to perch on our frozen frost-free water line, I think she is laughing at me.

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Affirmation And Connection: Therapy Dogs And Working Animals

Affirmation And Connection

Affirmation And Connection

Every book experience is different. Some book events are work, some businesslike. Some talks are empty, some are crowded. Sometimes there are no questions, sometimes a lot.

This weekend, Maria and I went to Bucks County, Pa. in support of two of my passions – working animals and therapy dogs. I was invited by Deborah Glessner, a friend and a co-founder (along with Wendi Huttner) of Nor'wester Readers, a therapy dog organization that helps children read. A good cause all around.

Debbie is  retired school librarian and a dynamo when it comes to photography,   animals and the work of therapy dogs.

Maria and I went to Bucks County on Saturday and came home today. On Sunday I gave a talk to about 150 people it was held in a middle school auditorium that seats 300,  and then on Sunday night, about 15 or so people paid to have dinner with me. It was an affirming day for me, my favorite kind of book talk – I spoke for awhile, there were many great questions and compelling and heartfelt conversation about the future of animals, the meaning of animal rights, the ways in which animals communicate with one another and with people.

One very thoughtful young woman asked me about the idea of Personhood for animals, something that would protect animals from the arbitrary decisions of unknowing human beings. I hadn't thought about it, but I will.

I have begun talking about my next book "Talking To Animals," and honing the ideas in front of people who are intensely interested in the subject. I'm getting very excited about the book. We also talked quite a bit about the plight of the New York Carriage Horses, the carriage trade there is trying to fend off an effort by the mayor of New York and various animal rights organizations to ground them because they believe work for animals is exploitive, immoral and abusive.

There are lots of horse lovers out there, and most, if not all,  are rooting for the carriage horses. They understand the power of humans and animals working together.

I signed a lot of books after the talk.

The dinner was very special as well, we talked in an intimate and comfortable setting – an  old inn in Yardley, Pa., for several hours Sunday night. After dinner, we just talked to one another, a beautiful and rare thing for a writer to experience with readers. It was comfortable and engaging, stimulating as well. I learned a lot.

I am very happy to see that Maria now plays a key part in these conversations, she has as much to say as I do, and we keep  honing ourselves as a  team. People are very interested in her and  her work and she has a lot to say about it, and has gotten comfortable saying it. Sometimes I look at her, and am jolted – not surprised – once more by how interesting she is. A great thing for me to see.

It was a successful weekend, a good affirmation of writing. It is also a great gift for any writer to be appreciated in that way. I am not a big deal, but I felt like one. That doesn't happen often around my farm, in my small but magical world. I also learn when I travel what the blog means to people.

People said nice things about my books and the blog and were interested in my ideas about animals. I don't imagine they all agreed with me, and it doesn't matter to me, it's the conversation and thought that is precious. If I can get people to think, I am worth something as a writer.

One guest found my work when she pulled one of my books out of the trash, we laughed about that. Some followed the blog, but had never read a book, some read my books but had never seen the blog.  I told a bunch of stories about life on the farm, Maria and I talked about blogging and our life with animals. We offered some stories and got some good ones back. I see that the blog is as important as the books, if not more so, I could not have imagined that when I started it in 2007. People follow it closely, they often remember my life in greater detail than I do.

The work of the Nor'wester Therapy group is profound. They are using well-trained therapy dogs to help children read in many different ways. Wendi and Debbie are great animal lovers, and are committed to using animals to help children. They work very hard and need support.

Their work is successful, much appreciated and widely praised, it was a pleasure for us to go to Bucks County in support of them. As always, it was shocking for me to see the intense development of an area I once visited as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Most of the open space there is gone, big houses are lined up on top of one another for miles and miles.

Maria and I were invited to stay at Debbie's home, and we spent a lot of time cuddling with her two sweet Labs,  Heidi and Hannah. We missed Lenore, we need to get another dog in our lives.

As much as Maria and I loved the trip, as well-treated as we were, as much fun as we had, we were both so happy to come home and see the hills of our beautiful county – Washington County, N.Y., when we came over the hills an hour or so from Albany  – the old barns, the farms, the sense of space and the very profound connection to nature. On the way in, we passed pigs, cows, bulls, sheep and gorgeous old barns, framed against  rolling hills.

We pulled into the driveway and were greeted by the joyous brays of Lulu and Fanny. It was great to be in Bucks County, it is great to be home.

Before we unpacked, we chopped ice, drew water, brought out hay, got the side outdoor faucet working (the frost-free is still frozen) so we won't have to carry buckets as far. Maria worked on her string chair, then brushed the donkeys, I worked with Red and the sheep in the snow (it is getting low enough) and I dug a channel so the water building up in the pasture might drain a bit – we are awash in mud and manure. We counted our many blessings. I would encourage anyone who loves dogs or other animals to check out the work of the Nor'wester Readers, it will touch your hearts, remind you of the sacred nature of animals working with people, and inspire you over the good that so many people do.

How  humbling that I was asked to help out, it was so good to be a writer this weekend, to share the experience with my wife,  and to be among so many warm and committed human beings.


Next weekend, Maria, me and Red are going to Connecticut in continuation of the "Saving Simon" book tour. On Saturday  I'll be speaking at the Russell Library in Middletown, Conn. (2 p.m., 3/21) and Sunday at the Cheshire Public Library in Cheshire, Conn., also at 2 p.m.

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