It was half-term, and when Husband suggested a mini break in Devon, it seemed like a good idea. A reward for forcing myself to confront lots of scary things during the college term. I had lots of study to do, but I decided I could study in a cottage just as well as at home, and my breaks would be striding over windy cliffs rather than walking down the road. Plus, no housework, so all rather lovely. We decided to take elderly dog, as she loves the beach and there won’t be many more opportunities to take her. Mother hasn’t had a holiday in ages, so we invited her too. It was an excellent plan. But even excellent plans can go wrong…
Things started to be difficult fairly early on, but we will skip the description of the dog fouling in the car on the way there, and jump straight into the cottage—which was lovely. A small semi-detached house with two bedrooms and three bathrooms, it seemed ideal. It was incredibly clean, and everything was comfortable and modern. They had painted murals on the walls, and there was a view of the sea from an upstairs window. I set up a table with my computer and books, and settled into a week of study and seaside.
It happened in the evening, when we were leaving to have dinner in a local pub. It was dark, and pouring with rain, and the wind was racing up the cliffs. The cottage had off-road parking a short walk from the house, and I set off with Mum while Husband locked the house. The wind was pulling at our hair, and the rain was beginning to increase, so I hurried ahead to unlock the car and open the heavy door before Mum got there. Such a mistake. Why did I not walk with her, holding her arm for support? Why did I not have a torch? Why did we even think taking an elderly woman to the pub was a good idea? Hindsight is a terrible thing.
There was a step up to where the car was, then a step down. Tricky to see in the dark.
“Mind the step,” I called as I unlocked the car and threw the keys inside.
Mum stepped up onto the kerb, but forgot the step down. I was heaving the door open, heard her call out, watched her stagger forwards. I left the door, rushed towards her as she fought to keep her balance, reached out to grab her hand, missed, lurched forwards and clutched the front of her coat, which slid from my gasp and Mum fell, straight back, smack onto the concrete.
The rain was still falling, relentlessly wetting everything.
“Mum!” I shouted, rushing to her.
No response. She lay, still, not a sound.
“Mum!” I called again as I reached her side.
There was a groan.
Husband arrived, tripped over the same step and managed to get his balance. I yelled to him to call an ambulance. There was no phone signal, so he ran back to the house to use the wi-fi. A man from the flats opposite shouted, asking if everything was okay, and could he help?
I asked if he had an umbrella, and he arrived, knelt next to us, tried to cover Mum. I took off my coat, hardly noticed the rain seeping through my cardigan, tried to cover Mum, told the man to get the old towel from the back of the car, and the blanket from the back seat, all the while telling Mum to keep still, she was safe now, the ambulance would soon arrive.
I tried to remember distant first-aid courses: Don’t move the patient in case of broken bones, keep them warm, reassure them, check for bleeding, check for breathing…but not in that order.
Husband came back to say the ambulance person wanted to ask some medical questions. I went into the house. They took some details, told me the ambulance would be at least two hours (two hours!) and then put me on hold. I was on hold for a long time.
The nice man from opposite arrived, saying they thought they should move Mum as it was so cold and wet. I tried (desperately) to decide what was best. “Don’t move the patient” was embedded in my mind. But it was pouring! And two hours! I told him I agreed it was best, but not to lift Mum, make her get up alone, with help supporting her, but never lifting. Then, if she had broken anything, the pain would make her stop and she was unlikely to make anything worse. If moving was too painful and she stopped, we could have a rethink.
The operator came back to the phone. I asked her whether I should give Mum a drink (sweet tea was in my mind) should I lie her down or sit her up for a head injury? Should I let her eat? Should I remove her wet clothes?
The operator told me not to move the patient. I could lift the visor of a helmet but not remove it. I should check for breathing.
I realised she was reading from a list.
I stopped her, and asked if she had any clinical training.
She told me not to move the patient.
I asked her again (using my teacher voice, which I’m not proud of) whether she had any clinical training.
No, she did not.
I thanked her, said she had been very kind, told her I understood everything she had told me. Ended the call. Dashed upstairs, grabbed duvet and towels, covered the sofa (because it wasn’t my cottage and we mustn’t spoil it) and removed the back cushions so soaked mother could lie down.
Mum arrived, supported by kind man from opposite and husband.
We sat her down, she wouldn’t lie. Should I make her lie down? She said the light hurt her eyes. I knew I needed to observe her, told her it had to stay on.
We tried phoning NHS 111, I needed to speak to a medic to ask what to do. It was on a continual loop, asking us to choose options, then starting again. Might have been due to dodgy wifi-calling with dodgy-internet connection (no phone signal). I realised that actually, I know a LOT of medics, half my friends seem to be doctors! I would message them and ask for help. Felt slightly cheeky, because they would be off-duty and trying to relax/live their life, but I decided I needed a favour. Sent messages to two friends who are doctors.
Managed to remove wet clothes from Mum, left them in a heap on the floor, wrapped her in duvets. She was too shaken to want to be fussed with dry clothes, and it was warm, so I left her for a while as she was. Tried to chat, told her funny stories (which weren’t funny) about the children when they were small, and about my course, and all sorts of strained boring conversation.
She was very shaken and weak, and I wanted to rouse her. I poured some sugar into my palm, told her to dip her finger in it and put some on her tongue. She did. I told her to do it again. Gradually I watched the energy return, it was like magic! Mum noticed too, and asked what I had given her. Assured her it was sugar and not cocaine.
She wanted a drink. I gave her sips of water. She was sick.
Kind doctor friends responded, telling me what to do—which was pretty much what I was doing anyway. But a relief to know that sitting or lying probably made no difference, and a big cup of tea was a bad idea until she had been checked, and being awake was important.
I phoned the ambulance service again, told them Mum had been sick. Made it clear that she had been unconscious for a short time, that she seemed muddled. I could hear her chatting to husband, sounding much brighter. I didn’t mention that, I wanted her checked by someone who knew more than me.
Two hours is a long time. We waited, keeping Mum warm, keeping her awake (not easy) trying to appear unconcerned. My mind was full of cracked skulls and internal bleeding and strokes. I talked about the ducks and how naughty the boys were when they were 10, and did she remember her first job? Husband was better at chatting than me, he managed to get her talking, she would only sigh and groan when I tried.
Daughter messaged, suggesting I pack a bag in case the ambulance took her to hospital. I ran around, guessing what might be needed, searching for prescriptions and toothbrushes and clean underwear and something comfy to wear in bed.
The ambulance arrived—a little over two hours. I opened the door, heard the crew share a joke, fought to control my irritation, to remember that this was their job, they couldn’t do everything at a run even if tonight I needed them to.
They came inside, declined a cup of tea, chatted to Mum while they assessed her. They weren’t sure whether they needed to take her to hospital, as it was already more than two hours since the accident, so they left to phone a doctor. I wondered if they would come back, worried some more about all the things that might be happening inside my poor shaken mother.
They came back. Mum needed to go to hospital. They wrapped her in blankets and took her bag, and I watched them lead her away.
“Try to get some sleep,” they said. “The hospital will phone you later.”
Husband told me to eat (a day without dinner) but I was too tense, ate a bowl of cereal, felt better.
I went to bed and didn’t sleep. The guilt was immense. Why hadn’t I been holding her arm? Why had I taken her out in the dark? Why hadn’t I been quicker at trying to catch her? I cried then, and lifted all my guilt and worry upwards, to God, who was big enough to handle it even when I didn’t have the words to explain it.
I must have slept because at 2:30 am the hospital called and woke me. The doctor asked who I was, said he was with my mother—what was her name? I said her name. He asked if I knew what had happened. Somewhere in my sleepy brain an alert sounded—was this a scam? He had given me no information and seemed to be getting lots of details from me. I stopped giving proper answers, started to be equally vague: yes, I knew what had had happened. He paused, considering. (Afterwards, Husband, who was listening, told me that the poor doctor was trying to verify my identity before he gave confidential patient information. But at 2:30 am, this was too subtle for me.)
Mum had a fractured skull and there was a small bleed but they didn’t need to operate.
He told me that they would keep her in for observation, give her medication so nothing got worse, that everything was stable. It didn’t feel stable. The whole world was out of kilter.
The rest of the holiday was spent visiting the hospital, and trying to enjoy walks on the beach that weren’t relaxed, staring at pages of college work but not really absorbing anything, planning what would happen if Mum had to stay after our cottage let ended.
But she didn’t. We collected her, and we came home. While the course of pills continued, I wanted her with me, to check on her easily. Mum was tired, and shaken, but not ill.
After a week she moved back to her own house. Gradually her confidence came back, eventually her bounce did too.
She’s okay now…though probably needs a holiday…