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My Dad Had a Stroke, And I Had to React

03/23/2012 05:09 EDT | Updated 05/23/2012 05:12 EDT

My dad isn't Superman. I think there must be a point where every child realizes that -- and mine came this week when my father had a transient ischemic attack (TIA), sometimes referred to as a mini-stroke.

He had just come home from lunch and wasn't himself; he felt dizzy and was going to lie down for five minutes. I thought nothing of it. I made him a sandwich and sat at my computer reading. When my dad got up and walked into the kitchen, I asked him something I can't remember now. But I'll never forget his reply. It was a jumble of words that sounded like a made- up language. At first he smiled and so did I because it sounded so ridiculous.

Then, as his expression changed to puzzlement, mine shifted to horror. A few years ago, my grandmother had found herself unable to speak properly and doctors told her she may have had a mild stroke. I read everything I could on the subject and knew what the warning signs were -- language that didn't make sense was at the top of the list.

My father was having a stroke. And I didn't know what to do.

The next half hour passed in a blur. My father is a brilliant doctor -- but also a stubborn one who might be the world's worst patient. When I asked him what we should do, after he had started to form proper sentences again about five minutes later, he said it was nothing and he just needed to lie down for a bit.

I was not convinced and became hysterical. I called my brother, colleagues from his clinic, 911, the free Ontario health line, and finally his cardiologist. (My father is 83 and has had two open heart surgeries in the last decade.) And all of them said the same thing -- get him to the hospital now.

If you've met my dad, you would know that getting him to see a doctor is easier said than done. It took almost two hours of pleading, negotiating, threatening, and screaming for him to let me drive him down to Toronto Western's emergency room. And he was anything but pleased. (An ambulance wasn't an option; to give you an idea of what I was dealing with here, he said that if I called the paramedics, he would refuse treatment.)

That car ride was the most white-knuckled drive I've ever had. I was trying to stay calm as he made small talk, occasionally garbling a word, which sent me back into a feeling of panic. After arriving, we waited patiently for the triage nurse. When we sat down to talk to her, my father downplayed the entire episode, saying it was nothing. He said he may have slurred his speech for a moment. No big deal.

I jumped in and tried to make the case that this was a lot more than "no big deal," but it didn't seem like she was realizing the severity of what was happening. My dad was joking, she was laughing -- what was going on?! My dad is having a stroke!

After we had finished registration and were back in the waiting room, my father, the worst patient in the world, said that he wasn't waiting longer than an hour to be seen. Now, anyone who's ever waited in a Toronto emergency room knows that's not humanly possible. (Michael Moore and his idealistic Sicko Canadian waiting room times be damned.) I started to panic. And then started making more calls. First to my dad's cardiologist to tell him that my father was threatening to leave and what should I do? His response: "You have the car keys, right? Don't let him get in that car until he sees a doctor."

The second call was to my brother, because he's the only person my father listens to -- "Lex, you need to come down here and make Dad stay -- he's threatening to leave in the middle of what may be a stroke." He said he was on his way, but to do what I could to keep him there.

After that, what little composure I had managed to muster on the drive down started crumbling. As I walked back to the triage nurse, I lost it, hysterically telling her that my father was threatening to leave and was there please anything she could do to help us. I know I was hysterical because at some point during this exchange, she stopped making eye contact.

But I quickly realized my pleas and the severity of my father's case had been realized. A nurse appeared and shepherded us through the doors; my father was given a CAT scan, an echocardiogram, and had blood taken. We were seen by a group of the most wonderful nurses and technicians that I've met in many years. They cared for him kindly, laughing at his bad jokes and listening to my endless questions. And eventually, a doctor took us into a room and sat us down for a chat.

He explained that my father had experienced a TIA -- or a mini-stroke, which like a stroke interrupts blood flow to a part of the brain and causes stroke-like symptoms for a short period of time. He also said that this could be a precursor to a larger event, and there were some precautions to take. But most importantly he told my father and I that anytime something like this happens, my father needs to immediately get himself to an emergency room and that I did the right thing.

As we left, my dad took my arm and linked it into his. He grabbed my hand tight and squeezed. And he said "Thank you."

My dad isn't Superman. He's a stubborn, old-fashioned, grumpy curmudgeon, who hates going to the doctor. But looking back on this, I hope he knows how much I love him -- and that I don't need Superman, I just need him.