(Callicoon, NY, Sullivan County. In 2008, as the Presidential Primaries threatened to burst our national seams and fracking was making inroads throughout the Delaware River Basin, I (Liz Bucar) started writing Breathing Is Political (BIP) for a ton of local and larger reasons.
The next eight years swept along unremarkably. There were the usual ups and downs — chugging against the tide or floating effortlessly — but always, good health was the rule. Then, in late December 2016, I cleaned a three-story farmhouse one day, staggered gasping into the Callicoon emergency room the next and was discharged home on oxygen several days later.
That’s when BIP and I adopted an additional purpose and called it “Breathing Is Life (BIL).” (If I was you and came to BIL looking for medical information and nursing tips, I’d want to know that I’m not a crackpot. Please click the links for: a quick overview (below) of how I see the world; too few posts about life on the Delaware; BIP’s take on fracking; plain old politics; and my resume.)
Until December 21, 2016, my health was so relentlessly dependable that I hadn’t given it a thought or bothered with baseline lab tests, x-rays or annual doctor visits in more than twenty years. (It gets worse: I’m an LPN* who’s worked regular rotations in obstetrics, pediatrics, ICU and the Emergency Room. Please! Do as I say not as I did!)
While my baby boomer friends were facing facts — dutifully getting yearly 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 and ranch dressing; eat a vegan dinner and top it off with two or three cream-packed donuts; and never, ever go to sleep without a giant 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 regular bouts of Lyme Disease, the odd vitamin and Tylenol, I was pharma-free and maybe a little obnoxious about it.
Then, lightning cracked and I needed a plan or, at least, some bullet points to go with my snazzy new oxygen gear.
- First, I had to slow down and remember how to breathe and talk at the same time;
- Second, I needed to shower and wash my face without snorting soapy water up the nasal cannula and down my throat; and
- Third, I needed to create and FOLLOW a daily routine.
(Somewhere in there, I also needed to get off the New York State of Health website and talk with an actual Medicaid person!)
The scariest thing about surviving a lightning strike is this: if an impossible event occurs once, it can again. I came home with an oxygen tank in tow but no real clue what had kicked my butt, the actual damage done or what I could expect of the future. In those early days, breathing took most of my energy but, as the weeks passed and my doctor’s answers continued to come with shrugged shoulders, I needed to devise a strategy that would boost my chances for improvement or, better yet, recovery.
I’d spent years taking care of sick people and here I was, trapped in the headlights. How shaken must non-medical people be when they’re blindsided by a health crisis? I needed information and a direction. 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.
And context. Like anything else — a law or a rowdy drunk — it’s best to treat people, sick or otherwise, in their context. My context is Sullivan County, NY.
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’m inexpressibly grateful to live where my heart is, but I’m one of the lucky ones. My family’s been able to stand with 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, as a former hospital nurse and home health worker in Western Sullivan County, I’ve seen the isolation, anxiety and downright terror that too many people experience when the hospital discharges them home. I’ve seen the shell-shocked families whose jobs and obligations force them to live in other towns or other states, struggling to be in two places at once and not knowing where to turn. I’ve fielded the tearful calls from middle-aged kids, desperate to find someone who’ll care for their far-distant and ailing parents.
Sullivan County, NY is gorgeous, magical, rural, poor and aging. Many of our elders live alone on idyllic country roads where neighbors are “down a bit, past the barn and behind the trees.” They have mobility problems or need supplemental oxygen to breathe and live where electric, internet and phone services are unreliable on good days, nonexistent on stormy others. Too many have no local family and their part-time or seasonal neighbors are rarely available in an emergency. They 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 the hardest working, most compassionate government advocates I’ve ever known. Unfortunately, even 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 family and community solutions for some of our gnarliest transportation, communication, nutrition and respite care problems.
- 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 a county-based, multi-partner, after-school care and tutoring program, subsidized in part by state and federal funds, located in local churches, schools (community centers) that capitalizes on the skills of senior citizens and students and works on a system of financial supports and swaps. (If a student can’t pay for the math tutoring s/he receives from a retired bank manager, the student and his/her family will swap for needed services like yard work, light housekeeping, companionship, grocery shopping, garden care, clearing downspouts, vehicle oil changes, etc.)
- Imagine a successful partnership between Public Health Nursing, the Child Care Council (model) and BOCES to train local students, men and women for home health care professions like LPN, Certified Nursing Assistant and Nutrition Assistant.
- Imagine those students receiving reduced tuition benefits if they contract to provide local services for a determined period of time.
Obviously, any of these ideas requires a thorough discussion of the details. Can the schools (including BOCES) absorb the liability costs? How will BOCES’ students and teachers use the program as a hands-on learning experience in areas like horticulture, elder care, personal finance and time management, nursing care, employment protocols and carpentry? Who will handle necessary after-school transportation costs? What kind of onsite supervision will be necessary and how will it dovetail with BOCES’ training mandate?
Those are details and questions. This is the bottom line:
“When Dad’s health failed, my parents, children and I were lucky to live across the street from each other. Mom watched the kids after school and got some extra spending money. I helped with Dad’s daily care. The kids and I were the very grateful beneficiaries of Mom’s famous raw salad, Clothespin Cookies and homemade bread. Dad, a former social studies teacher, helped with science, English and history homework until hypoxia made it impossible. The kids got a grandma tomboy of the first order and I always knew they were safe while I was at work.” ~ Liz Bucar, Breathing Is Political
I hope the health, nursing and resource information at Breathing Is Life is of benefit and that you share it with your Facebook and other friends but I really hope you’ll post feedback and tips at the Breathing Is Political Forum! If you like what you find here, make your life easier and 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 like referenda on the Democratic Party and its increasingly 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 sophomoric and self-congratulatory 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 prohibition 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.)
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 Delaware 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 our local debates are about merging historic 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, ignore the needs of those with least resources. Hopefully, community projects such as Callicoon Visioning and the 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; that remembers, no matter our individual origins, that we are part of a vanishing American treasure: a rural town that survives beside a river 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, we could almost
touch the tops of travel trailers as they whooshed beneath us in the flood. Whether people came to the bridge that day from the hamlet of Callicoon, New York on the River’s eastern shore or from Damascus, Pennsylvania on its west, we stared at each other in primal shock, not so different, I’d imagine, than a century before when ice floes bigger than houses collided and boomed, threatening the old bridge and runners shouted through the streets, “The ice is breaking! The ice is breaking!”
I’ve lived in desserts, cities and along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque but I love the Delaware River Valley. The Catskill Mountains aren’t flashy like their majestic siblings, The Rockies and The Himalayans, but some of their foundations were laid when continents collided. They were folded, silted, glaciated and, eventually, became part of the Appalachians, “one of the oldest mountain ranges on Earth....” The valley is home to Devonian fossils, deposited when seas covered its floor, and I suspect our hill gods are even older.
I dearly hope a day comes when I have time to tell more of our stories at Home on the Delaware River because my friends and neighbors have survived here on a diet of creative resilience and a trunk full of skills. They’re generalists who can pound nails, fence posts, bread dough and computer keys. They’re
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, a long-time traveling nurse, baked our bread, preserved our food, crocheted our rugs, made our clothes and took care of me after school and when I was sick. 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!
*I’m a NYS licensed LPN who’s worked regular rotations in obstetrics, pediatrics, ICU and the Emergency Room. For health reasons, I’ve temporarily “deactivated” my license but look forward with all fingers crossed to a time when I’ll be performing home health services again. Please! Take better control of your health and do as I say not as I did!
“When a professional informs the Department at the time of reregistration that he or she will not be practicing in New York, the record is marked INACTIVE as of the start of the next registration period.” ~ NYS Education Department, Division of the Professions