Hospital Psychosis

(This was first published over three years ago, when my mother was hospitalized for a short stint. I thought it was worth repeating after reading Chris Bohjalian’s Thanksgiving article.)

Hospital Psychosis can ruin your whole day.

There always seems to be grist for the writing mill after a visit to my mother’s. Her nursing home has been a playground of new friendships, a place to extract wisdom by the bucket loads and an opportunity to enrich the lives of the staff, the residents and myself through off-the-record coaching conversations.

This visit found my mother weak from a week of limited food and liquid intake, as she battled her way through C-Diff. A trip to the hospital was in order.

After a couple of days of observation and tests, the conclusion was simple: The antibiotic she had been prescribed was the culprit. This was a quick and easy fix, so I decided to return home after having been on the road for a week.

The four hour drive went quickly, as the fall foliage of New England kept me visually occupied. Three hours into catching up in the comfort of my home I was interrupted by a call from my two sisters who remained bed-side with my mother.

“We’re not sure what is going on, but you might want to come back. Although she’s doing well physically, she is not in her right mind.” This reminded my eldest sister of the day, a year ago, that my step-father passed away. Before slipping into a coma, he spent time within an imaginary world of old friends and situations, ordering us to be careful picking up a mirror and instructing us to buy a round of drinks for the bar customers. Although amusing, we recognized this was the end for him, and it provided some very bitter-sweet memories.

Luckily, I had yet to unpack my car, so a fill-up for the gas tank and a strong coffee for me at the service station was all I really needed to be on my way.

When I arrived, my sisters were heavy with concern and fatigue. My mother, though insisting I be there, had no idea that I was. She eyed me suspiciously when I told her I loved her and her biggest concern was looking for a baby that lived only in her imagination. A usually restful eighty-eight year old, she had been awake since 6am spouting gibberish.

It wasn’t until an hour or so before I arrived that my sisters got an answer – Hospital Psychosis. My middle sister and I looked this up in the hospital database and discovered “A hospital’s environment can be extremely stressful for patients, especially those who depend upon familiar surroundings for their overall peace of mind. The combination of noisy medical equipment, unfamiliar surroundings and disorienting light cues can lead to a frightening condition known as hospital psychosis. Sufferers of hospital psychosis often report sensory hallucinations, slurred or confused speech and/or pronounced memory loss.”

Although this alleviated many of our concerns (was she having a stroke? Is there such a thing as rapid onset Alzheimer’s? Will she recover from whatever this is?), we were baffled that we had not been warned of this prior to her visit to the hospital or that it took the questioning of several hospital employees before receiving a possible explanation. Though none of the staff seemed concerned throughout the day, they were unable to provide a reason for my mother’s obvious loss of a rational mind.

If you are helping with the care of an elder, be aware of the possibility of this condition. Though temporary, if you are not informed of this fairly common occurrence, it can indeed ruin your whole day, or in the case of my incoherently babbling mother, well into the night!

She fell into a fitful sleep around 11pm. We were pleased to find her alert the following morning, ready to be released and resume her normal life. And my sisters and I are strongly suggesting to the nursing home and hospital administrations that this information be shared as a matter of course.

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