“If society wants us to keep caring for others, it’s going to have to show a little more care for us.”
— Kate Washington, the author of “Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America”
In 2015, Kate Washington’s world changed. Her husband, Brad Buchanan, was late for family dinner. She found him in the bathroom, coughing up blood — a lot of it. She handed him a bucket and asked the neighbor to watch their two young daughters while she drove him to the emergency room.
Doctors found that a tumor had ruptured in one of his lungs and he urgently needed chemo. As her husband became critically ill, Ms. Washington, a freelance writer, was thrust into the role of nurse.
After Mr. Buchanan’s first round of chemo, the tumor shrank too quickly, causing his lung to collapse and then fill with thick, toxic fluid that put him at high risk for infection. Before he could continue treatment for cancer, he was sent home to recuperate.
Ms. Washington found herself performing high-level nursing tasks, like administering antibiotics three times a day through a PICC line — a thin tube that leads from veins in the arm to the veins near the heart. “My hands were shaking,” she said as she remembered apprehensively pushing in the drugs for the first time and feeling the weight of keeping her husband alive.
But that weight would only become heavier when Mr. Buchanan had a stem cell transplant that left him with graft-versus-host disease, a condition that occurs when donated cells attack the body.
After spending four months in the hospital, becoming temporarily blind and unable to walk, eat, dress or use the toilet on his own, he was given his discharge papers. A doctor told Ms. Washington that her husband would need 24-hour care and “could not be left alone for even a moment.” When she explained that she had two children who also had needs, he said, “Well, usually family steps in, and it works out fine.”
Ms. Washington felt the burden of responsibility, but also the sting: The U.S. health care system relies on and takes for granted the “invisible army” of people — mostly women — who keep the system functioning by performing home care for the many people who are “too well for the hospital” but “too sick for home,” as well as for those on end-of-life care.
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