My wife called me at my day job the Friday before Memorial Day to tell me the news from back home in Texas was not good. I didn’t expect it would be, for her mother had been back and forth from nursing home to hospital for the last three or four years; in the last year, the movement back and forth had become more frequent.
The cycle was this: condition failing at the nursing home, transfer to the hospital, almost losing her in the hospital, then a rally in her condition and a return to the nursing home.
A few weeks ago a doctor had recommended that my wife allow him to unhook her mother’s feeding tube. We know other families who have taken that option for an elderly loved one, and we make no judgments about that. It may indeed be the most humane treatment.
Nevertheless, my wife could not bear the thought that her mother would starve to death, so she refused to allow the doctor to take away her mother’s nutrition. Sure enough, just a day or two later, her mother was awake, talking and in good spirits. My wife’s sister in Texas was optimistic their mother could recover enough to resume physical therapy.
That was not to be. Their mother‘s condition worsened over the ensuing weeks, and she went back to the hospital.
On that Friday before Memorial Day came the news that was not unexpected but seemed sudden. The doctor told my sister-in-law that he recommended unhooking the breathing machine, for there was no longer any hope. The clock could not be turned back. Age and its effects would not go away. He assured my sister-in-law in person and my wife by phone that their mother would pass into eternity within a matter of minutes once all life support was unhooked.
That was the news my wife had called to tell me. She said she had given permission to turn off the breath of life given by the machine and turn her mother over to the Lord. That would happen sometime later in the afternoon at that hospital in Austin.
I stayed at work and a couple of hours my wife called, crying. Her sister had called to say that the machine had been turned off and, as the doctor had predicted, their mother died within minutes. I left work to prepare for a long, sad trip; we left for Austin at 5 the next morning to spend the week with relatives and friends.
I know that every single one of you reading this has experienced something similar in your family’s life, for none of us can avoid death. Many of you have experienced even more heartrending passings of parents or children or siblings or spouses.
Page 2 of 2 - In the old days, old people died at home, and they died without protracted visits to the hospital for temporary treatment. They died with family around them in familiar surroundings and in their own beds. Technology has changed that.
My mother-in-law almost died two years ago, but my wife and my sister-in-law, mostly my sister-in-law because she is in Texas, got her out of the nursing home and into a hospital with modern medical marvels. They got two more years with their mother.
Would it have been better to let her pass two years ago? Her quality of life (a phrase I am not fond of) was not good. But maybe it was good enough for their mother, for she certainly did enjoy, when in her rallying periods, to be alive with her daughters.
How about earlier this year when the doctor told my wife he would recommend removing the feeding tube? Would that have been a better choice for their mother? There were still some wonderful days for visits and phone calls. Were they worth the expense? Or the final pain?
If you haven’t had to make decisions like this and don’t want to, know that you are not alone. Most people don’t want to make those decisions — at least for their own family members.
Others, though, are willing to make those decisions for their own family members, as well as everyone else’s, and likely they will be called upon to do so after 2014, if the health care reforms stand.
In the future, people like my wife and sister-in-law who are faced with life-and-death decisions will likely get a lot of help from government officials.
I doubt my wife and sister-in-law would agree that is the better way.