(Callicoon, NY, Sullivan County). T’is I, Liz Bucar, a perpetually healthy sixty-four year old nurse who cleaned a three-story farmhouse one day, staggered gasping into the Callicoon emergency room the next and was discharged home on oxygen a week later.
Until December 21, 2016, my health had been sailing along so dependably that I hadn’t bothered with baseline lab tests or x-rays in more than twenty years.
While my baby boomer friends were facing facts — dutifully getting annual checkups, power walking the River Road and meal-planning with actual fruits and veggies — I’d decided the empty nest years were my chance for guilt-free indulgence: I’d ride fifteen hilly miles on my bicycle because it felt good and smoke half a pack of cigarettes; eat fresh fruit in a cup of yogurt and suck down two baloney sandwiches on sticky white bread with corn chips; accidentally eat a vegan dinner and top it off with three or four cream-packed donuts; and never, ever go to sleep without a gigantic bowl of ice cream. I wasn’t impervious to illness, but the occasional flu, migraine or arthritic twinge wasn’t a showstopper and I never needed help to breathe, eat, digest, evacuate, bend, stoop, walk or climb. In fact, beyond doxycycline for annual bouts of Lyme Disease, Tylenol and the odd vitamin, I was pharma-free and maybe a little obnoxious about it.
Then, a life-smacking health crisis occurred and I needed a new plan tout de suite.
One of my first priorities was to learn how to shower and wash my face without snorting soapy water down the nasal cannula. (Ditto teeth brushing and toothpaste down my throat.) I needed to create and FOLLOW a daily events calendar. But, more than anything, I needed to slow down and remember how to breathe and talk at the same time. Then I could escape the New York State of Health website and talk to an actual Medicaid person!
And research. I came home with an oxygen tank in tow but no certainty about what had kicked my butt, with what damage, to what extent and what “recovery” might mean in real-life terms. (Is it reasonable to expect I’ll be at the kids’ wedding in Denver this summer, for instance?) And most importantly, because “expectation” is closet talk for “percentages,” what can I do to amp up my chances?
I realized I needed a forum where I could speak as a nurse, a medical professional trained to observe changes in people, who’d never seen my own collapse coming; a forum where other people whose health had been upended overnight — or in a matter of seconds — could teach, learn, nod, shake our heads and roll our eyes together.
Sudden change is never easy, but when you live in a rural county like Sullivan, you measure and balance your resources with great care — especially in the winter when a household’s margin for slippage is minimal or non-existent.
Don’t get me wrong: I am inexpressibly grateful that I live where my heart is, but I’m one of the lucky ones. My entire family, has stood beside me every step of the way. One of my sons lives locally. He seems to like me a lot, has phenomenal patience, a great job and a boss who allows for family flexibility. Very importantly, we live in the Hamlet of Callicoon where our utilities rarely fail and we’re within walking distance of all the staples: food to pharmacy, books and gossip.
But I’m one of the lucky ones. My son survived heroin addiction in Western Sullivan County where the meager number of treatment, employment and transportation options are a terrible cruelty for families with few resources.
And when my Dad became house bound, my parents, children and I were lucky to live across the street from each other. We got Mom’s famous raw salad and home made bread. The kids got a grandma tomboy of the first order and I always knew they were safe while I was at work.
But, as a former hospital nurse and home health worker in Western Sullivan County, I’ve seen the isolation, anxiety and downright terror too many elder patients experience when the hospital discharges them home. I’ve seen the shell shocked families with jobs and children in other towns, other states, wondering how to be in two places at once and where to turn.
We’re rural, we’re poor and we’re aging. We have a dearth of care workers for both our young and old.
Too many of our elders live alone on back roads where neighbors are “down a bit, past the barn and behind the trees.” Many have mobility problems or need supplemental oxygen to breathe. Many live where electric, internet and landline phone services are unreliable and completely absent during bad weather. Many have no local family and their part-time or seasonal neighbors are rarely available in an emergency. Many depend on the kindness of strangers for grocery shopping and basic companionship. Thankfully, Sullivan County is blessed with a phenomenal volunteer spirit and our Office for the Aging and Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) are topnotch, but they can’t augment our tax and industrial bases, build 21st century infrastructure or improve our abysmal health factors and outcomes:
In each of the seven years from 2010 through 2016, The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation has reported that people living in Bronx and Sullivan Counties have the worst health factors and outcomes of anyone else living in New York State.
I want Breathing Is Life to be a source of practical guidance from the basics of learning to breathe with a tube in your nose to the *#%*^&$* insurance jungle. I want people who’ve navigated the early retirement (potential income loss) . and (the potential crapshoot of) disability to share their experiences. More than anything, I want to create a forum where we pool our experiences to bolster patients and caregivers and find solutions to some of our gnarliest transportation, communication, nutrition and respite care problems. (For instance, imagine a collective of five households that shares coupons, trips to the grocery store and takes turns providing respite care. Imagine a collective of families that includes a plumber, organic gardener, baker and computer tech who swap services. Imagine….)
I hope you’ll add your perspective and suggestions to the conversation when we’re up and running! Please click the subscribe button in the right column of any page to receive updates when we publish new content.
BIP and I have been an item for eight-plus years. We started during the 2008 Presidential Primaries because the Obama-Clinton debates sounded to me like referenda on the Democratic Party and the US electorate’s shallow form of Populism. I spent that entire election cycle mesmerized by the historic drama of what our nation might embrace or reject, the unveiling of our rampant, defensive tribalism and mainstream media’s self-congratulatory and sophomoric coverage.
After the election, as you can read at Fracking Is Political, BIP and I were up to our ears in high-pressure, high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Thanks to Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS) and their fact-filled alarm ringing, BIP became part of what many believed was a futile effort to save the Delaware River Basin (DRB), Pennsylvania and New York from toxic gas extraction. Since then — in defiance of all the bookmakers — local fracktivists won a de facto fracking ban in the Basin and a moratorium in New York State. However, on January 17, 2017, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network announced that the Delaware River Basin Commission might re-consider its ban and warned us to demand a permanent ban in the Watershed. (As I write this, it is with great love and sadness that I read a message from one of our DRB defenders who is in North Dakota awaiting transport to Standing Rock.)
I hope the few posts I’ve managed to include about our people and culture at Home on the Delaware will encourage you to read James Eldridge Quinlan’s History of Sullivan County.
In many ways, BIP’s Home on the Delaware is a child of the fracking fight. Social, educational and economic divides exist in most places but are glaring in regions dependent on tourism and second-home buyers. When the frack fight revealed and exacerbated that divide in our River Valley, BIP organized The Light Up The Delaware River Party and invited everyone to celebrate the resources that define and unite us.
In small, interpersonal ways, it helped; but whether the debate is about merging beloved old school districts, the loss of our dairy farms, industrialization, gentrification or the siting of addiction recovery centers, our communal power is sapped by “either-or” solutions that, too often, ignores the needs of those with least resources. Hopefully, community projects such as Callicoon Visioning and North School Studio will help create a future that welcomes both old and new; that embraces eeling, maple “syrpling” and 3-D Printing with equal joy.
No matter where you stand in the hamlet of Callicoon, New York, you see Damascus, Pennsylvania across the River. At root, we are one people, joined by a waterway that the first hunters, fishers, trappers, farmers and loggers depended on for their lives.
The day the River rose to within a few feet of the bridge and we could almost touch the tops of travel trailers as they whooshed beneath us, people from both shores stared at each other in primal shock. Not so different, I’d imagine, as a century before when ice floes bigger than houses boomed and collided, threatening the bridge as runners shouted through the streets, “The ice is breaking! The ice is breaking!”
To live here year after year for decades requires resilience and a trunk full of skills. It requires generalists who can pound nails, fence posts, bread dough and computer keys. It requires a full-tilt immersion in:
Specialization is a relatively new idea in our work/labor and market places. I grew up in an extended family on land that fed us year-round. Grandma did our baking, preserved our food and made our clothes. Grandpa built our furniture, fixed the plumbing, ran the electric and planted acres of organic veggies every year. They and my parents survived The Great Depression and taught their family the value of flexible living or, in anthropological terms, “evolution.” Those of us who learned the lessons are ‘The New Vaudevillian* Workforce.”
*Vaudeville: A variety show featuring performers whose talents and improvisational skills are many and diverse.
And that, in l-o-o-o-o-o-n-g form, is BIP!