The last few weeks have been, um, “interesting”.
Early in June, my sister-in-law up in Rochester, NY had some major surgery scheduled, and we hadn’t seen various relatives (including a couple of new grand-nieces), so we drove up there for a two-week stay. The surgery went OK, although she’s got a long recovery ahead.
We’d been there a week when my cell rang at 4:30PM on a Tuesday, and showed my sister calling from Halifax. “This can’t be good”, thinks I: she’d normally just email me, or call of an evening. Sure enough: my mother was in hospital up in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario (“KW”) with severe abdominal pain. Well, the good news was that I was a lot closer than normal (a three hour drive, instead of nine). But then they sent her home a few hours later, saying that a CAT scan didn’t show anything and that they thought it was “a bug”, so we went to bed.
The next morning, my other sister, in Toronto (only an hour from my mom) called about 8AM to say that she was back in hospital, same symptoms. After some discussion, we agreed that we’d both drive to KW that day, so I did (Anita stayed to be with her sister).
When I got to the hospital, they had done another CAT scan, and found a serious bowel problem that required emergency surgery. This wasn’t the same hospital (there are two big ones in town, and they’d sent her to the other one this time); the doctor said he’d reviewed the CAT scan from the previous night and the problem wasn’t evident then, but that the new one showed that if he didn’t operate right away, she wouldn’t survive 24 hours.
My mom was coherent and opted for the surgery, so away she went (finally—of course “right away” means “in a few hours”, not what one might expect), and my sister and I spent the evening in a mercifully empty family lounge, flipping the TV between mindless sitcoms and the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Finally the doctor emerged and said the surgery had been a success. It turned out that he had been moderately convinced that it was going to be one of those cases where he’d open her up, see that there was no hope, and close, but it wasn’t that severe, and he’d been able to repair the damage. She was in ICU and would be there for at least a week, but things were looking better than they had a few hours ago.
My other sister made it in from Halifax about 1AM, and the next day we all went to the hospital and saw my mom (who was being kept sedated), then got lunch and talked about what was next. We agreed that I might as well return to Rochester, rather than sitting around waiting for something to happen, so I did that.
By this point it was Thursday night. I got a much-needed night’s sleep, and Friday we visited my sister-in-law and had an OK day until I got email from my sister saying that my mom had apparently had a minor heart attack at some point during treatment, and that her kidneys weren’t functioning well. So I decided to head back up to Ontario the next day.
When I got there, it was pretty clear that things were dire. My mom had left explicit instructions, both written and verbal, that she not only didn’t want CPR or advanced life support (a “DNR”), but that she didn’t want any ongoing treatment requirements such as dialysis. And the hospital said that even if she made it through this crisis, she would definitely need dialysis for at least a month.
So after more discussion amongst ourselves, we sat down with her doctor and primary nurse and talked through the situation, and concluded that the way to respect her wishes was to remove her from the breathing machine. And so she passed on, after 85 years of a full life, with her “three geese” (as she liked to refer to us kids) by her side, about 6PM on June 15, 2013.
Of course we’re sad and we’ll miss her, but we do feel good that we did what she wanted, and that she didn’t suffer long. In a slightly “Twilight Zone” coincidence, she took ill on the seventh anniversary of my dad’s death. He was even luckier, in that he took a nap one afternoon and died of a heart attack while sleeping. As all three of us have noted, with varying amounts of deliberate irony, going through a prolonged decline “would have killed him”.
The year after his death, my mom moved to an assisted living facility three blocks from the house where I grew up and where they had lived for 37 years. There she had her own apartment and could walk to most places, which she did happily, except when weather was bad. She even drove for the first four years or so, until she decided that it was getting too difficult for her. She swam almost every day, went to concerts and movies, visited her wide circle of friends, and even made multiple trips by plane, including visiting Halifax this spring. My older sister took over her finances, and set up accounts with the local taxi company, dry cleaner, et al, so my mom was able to do many such activities without even having to drag her wallet out. (Not that she wasn’t capable of doing so—she was remarkably spry and sharp right to the end—but particularly with the cabs, it was easier for her not to have to deal with it when the weather was bad.)
She had a good situation there, and was liked by the staff, several of whom teared up when we told them she had passed. And while it’s a town of 300,000 nowadays, it’s still not that big: one of the physiotherapists at the facility is engaged to the son of one of my best friends. She and my mom had forged a friendship before they even realized this. And the man across the hall from my mom is the father of a friend of mine from middle school, with whom I’d lost touch until his dad hooked us back up! Gotta love it.
I think I’ve had about enough of hospitals for a while.