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Issue Date:  April 1, 2005

Life or Death?

Twice she had to make critical decision


Editor’s note: With the Terry Schiavo case prompting Congressional intervention and federal litigation, a writer reflects on her own experience of the wrenching issues involved.

The first time I had to make a life-or-death decision seemed less difficult than the second.

My husband, hospitalized for treatment of his leukemia, seemed to be holding his own, eating well and joking with nurses and visitors. On his third day in the oncology unit, as friends departed at the end of visiting hours, something -- the Holy Spirit? -- told me to stay with him. As night filled the corners of his room, we talked about our children and his hopes for their future. He stopped me in midsentence with, “I’m having a stroke,” then quickly became incoherent. The blood cancer had caused a brain hemorrhage. The rest of the very long night was spent murmuring calm words and singing familiar hymns to him as nurses hurried in and out of the room. My job was to irrigate a tube carrying blood from his hemorrhaging kidneys. I was grateful to have anything at all practical to do for him.

The next morning the chatter and noise of a hospital awakening seemed surreal to me. His oncologist explained that leukemics “thrash” as they are dying. He told me, “We can fill him full of platelets, but his brain will never work again and he could live on for as long as two weeks, or we could give him something to help him relax.” With no hesitation I responded, “Let him have peace.” I couldn’t bear the thought of him dying tied to a bed, no longer knowing any of us. Shortly afterward, a nurse gave him an injection. Within a few minutes my husband was calm. His breathing slowed, became labored. I placed my hand over his heart, praying as I felt it falter, then stop. It was the right decision for him, for our family.

The second time, I called it wrong.

A foot of snow was on the January ground when my plane landed in Ohio. My mother had been admitted to intensive care following surgery for lung cancer. She was comatose and not expected to live. As a longtime Florida resident, I found the icy path to the hospital treacherous, but what was going on inside proved to be equally so. I found my mother hooked up to a ventilator to help her breathe, an intravenous tube to deliver medication and hydration, a feeding tube and a catheter. Although I was shocked and dismayed by her appearance, I was careful to not discuss her condition within earshot, as I had learned unconscious people are thought to retain their sense of hearing.

Her nurses were caring and tender both to her and to my sister and me. Her pulmonologist wasn’t. Standing next to her bed, he bluntly said, “She’s never going to improve. I suggest you think about letting her go.” I was outraged at his callousness. As the few days I could be with her slipped quickly away with no sign of improvement, I began to think he might be right and I should agree to pull her life support. My mother’s home parish sent the pastoral associate to help me plan her funeral. I chose readings and songs I thought she would like. I stayed at her bedside and talked to her, massaged her feet and sang to her as though she was fully alert. With a heavy heart, I left my mother, still unresponsive, and called a family meeting. My sister, her grown children and I sat in a circle around her dining room table. I told them I thought we shouldn’t let Mom suffer any longer. My sister was adamant it was too soon to decide. After a lengthy discussion, knowing I would be too far away to make daily decisions, I acquiesced to my sister.

Six weeks later, I received a call I was dreading. My sister was on the line. I steeled myself, but -- what was this? -- my sister was saying, not that my mother had died, but that she had suddenly sat up, decided it was not time for her to die, and was learning to breathe on her own! Soon she was in my sister’s house, surrounded by loving family. Ohio’s system for seniors provided home health care; hospice kept her pain-free. I flew home every two weeks to spend as much time with her as possible.

My mother lived for nine months with her feeding tube. We were able to make peace with the past. We talked about how she felt about her dying. “I don’t want to go, but I’m not afraid,” she said. On one visit I showed her what I had planned for her funeral and she changed everything. We laughed about how little I knew about what she preferred. Together we sang our way through a hymnbook as she chose the ones she wanted. Three days before her death we held a large family reunion to pay tribute to her life. At the end, my mother had a beautiful death. She was aware she was loved and had worth.

Holding on was right for my mother; not holding on to my husband was the right decision. Few are prepared to make the choice. How can we know when there are so few absolutes and no easy answers? A lot of prayer, a lot of honest conversations, a lot of putting someone else’s welfare above our own feelings and a lot of trying very hard to hear what God, in our loved one, is trying to tell us.

Judy Gross writes from Tallahassee, Fla.

National Catholic Reporter, April 1, 2005

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