Most adult children expect to see their parents grow older. Their parents may face a terminal cancer diagnosis or suffer a stroke; they may simply become more frail over time. Michelle Tupper Butler saw her father, Frank Tupper, go through an experience she wouldn’t wish on anyone. That traumatic event changed the course of his life, her life, her family’s life, and her professional endeavors.
Frank Tupper was a theologian and one of the founding faculty members at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He had also been a single father to his two children, Michelle and Elgin, following the death of his wife in 1983. Michelle says she and her father had an extremely close relationship. Frank had been retired all of two months when he tripped and fell in the dark at his home on Feb. 13, 2017. “He fell on his face and hyperextended his neck. His cervical vertebrae crushed his spinal cord,” she says. “I didn’t find him for 16 hours.”
He was on a ventilator for two weeks while doctors tried to manage the swelling. Surgeons removed the bone debris from his spinal cord and inserted rods into his neck to stabilize it. Michelle and her brother took 12-hour shifts to stay with him at the hospital. Frank was taken off the ventilator but had to have a tracheotomy and a feeding tube. He moved over to Frazier Rehab where he stayed for a month.
To say this was nerve-wracking is an understatement. Michelle had a full-time job at a law firm, two small children, and had been dealing with her own serious health issues for months. Although the situation was traumatic for everyone, the fact that Frank could still communicate was a blessing. “His brain was perfectly fine. And we got lucky because we had no plan. There was no will, no power of attorney, no anything. I didn’t know what any of these words meant, and I had a law degree from Georgetown,” she says. Her dad was able to let her know that he wanted to live.
What Happens Next?
While Frank was at Frazier, Michelle says things got real because she and her brother had to determine the next steps. She couldn’t take care of him in her house. “His power chair wouldn’t even fit in my house,” she says. They knew Frank couldn’t go back to his own house. Aside from the trauma associated with it, his driveway was too steep for a ramp. “We started weighing what we were going to do because he didn’t want to live in a nursing home,” she says. “Yet he couldn’t be alone.”
Michelle’s husband, Brandon, came up with the idea of buying a house that would accommodate their family and Frank. They sold Frank’s house and used that amount as the down payment on a house they could all live in. “Everything had to happen in a certain order and in a certain time period,” she says. Michelle had to reduce her hours at the law firm so she could clean out her father’s house to sell and then get her own house ready for sale, plus continue keeping tabs on her dad who did have to go into a nursing home for four months while they sold and bought houses. “My dad kept every single piece of paper that ever came into his life,” she says. “I found his taxes dating back to 1967.” It was a full-time job to clean out his four-bedroom house. His books alone filled 500 boxes.
Purchasing the new home didn’t mean every issue was resolved. Fortunately, Brandon is a carpenter and contractor so he was able to tackle a lot of the changes that had to be made to the house. “He was able to widen doorways and put a threshold in,” she says. Michelle had to get approval from the neighborhood homeowners’ association for Brandon to build a ramp. “Setting up his room was a big learning experience, and then we had to hire in-home help,” she says.
She says the scariest night of her life was when she brought her oldest child, Silas, home from the hospital after his birth. The second scariest night of her life was when she brought her quadriplegic father home to the new house.
“We hadn’t anticipated the lack of privacy and the loss of our family unit,” Michelle says. Frank was in the master bedroom just off the living room which meant it often seemed like her family of four was living in a fish bowl. Plus they had caregivers in the home at all times which impacted their family interactions and routines. Michelle was the de facto medical trainer and go-between which also took more of her time than she expected. Her brother drove across town every night to the shared home so that Michelle and her family could eat dinner together and do the bedtime routine.
She also had to keep track of any and all spending on Frank’s medical care. Her dad had a robust retirement account, but it was drained in three years. “His care was between $8,000-$10,000 a month,” she says.
The Silver Lining
Michelle was never grateful for her dad’s injury, but there were things she found tremendously important from the experience of living with him. “My kids are not afraid of disabled people,” she says. “If Dad’s legs would get askew, Silas would run over, pick up his feet, and put them in the right position.” Plus, her kids were able to see their grandfather and spend time with him in a way they might not have under other circumstances. “Betty would go in and read with him, and they’d watch Peppa Pig together,” Michelle says.
Channeling Experience Into Helping
Prior to her dad’s injury, Michelle’s legal work was focused on government investigations and allegations related to fraud and the False Claims Act. However, from having to navigate Frank’s care, she became committed to using her legal expertise to help other families whose loved ones have experienced random life-changing accidents or are trying to get protections in place for aging parents. She opened her own law firm focused on these issues. “I learned the Medicare rules really quickly. It really makes a difference having an advocate,” she says.
“I wish I had known the availability of long-term care benefits if you have your finances structured correctly,” she says. “The idea of spending $10,000 a month, nobody has that kind of money. Three years was all it took to empty [dad’s] retirement.”
She remains grateful that despite her dad’s injury, they were able to put a plan in place so that when he developed pneumonia in 2020 and went into hospice care, she was freed from having to make decisions that might have haunted her. “When he died, I got to just be his daughter. I knew I was executing his decision,” she says.
“I think when taking this on [the care of parents] you need to have a very real, honest conversation with your spouse, the parent, but the hardest one is with yourself, and being honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do,” she says.
By Carrie Vittitoe | Photos Submitted