Only Anecdotal

No numbers, just stories

Posts Tagged ‘death

My Inspiration

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My mom died around midnight Saturday night.

She had been struggling for many years with a number of chronic conditions, all beginning with a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in her forties. Over time, things became harder and harder, her lungs and heart weaker. She rallied forth, every time. She was strong, invincible I thought. But the cold she caught in a short-term rehabilitation unit was finally too much. An infection developed, and within two days, her kidneys failed. There were no heroic efforts to intubate or dialyze–my mom knew a long time ago that she never wanted those things. She talked to us for as long as she could, until she faded, and never awoke. I will always laugh as I think that she said she was sorry she would miss Downton Abbey this week.

My mom died an ideal death. The one blessing of losing my dad in 1985 was that it gave us plenty of time as a family to discuss death, and not to fear it. My dad had lung cancer, and was sentenced to certain death over three months before he actually died. In that time, we as a family spent our time in an endless cycle of work, dinner, hospital, home. Repeat. Several panics before the end–this is it–he pulled through, only to writhe in pain. I remember even as a twenty year old thinking that the fears of morphine addiction seemed ill-placed, as did the very arrogance that surgery on a dying man is a good idea. As I recall, we were never given a choice of what should happen, and if we were, we were probably still seduced by the notion of medical miracles. The last words I remember hearing from my dad are “It’s all right. It will be over soon.” He must have seen my frightened face, my anguish at the intensity of his suffering. I avoided all doctors and hospitals as much as possible–for years–until my own children were born.

I have spent an enormous amount of time in hospitals since then, in all sorts of situations. I have to say, I am most often impressed by the care and knowledge I see, and my mom had remarkably good care at the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit of St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City.

If the acute care of her final days was beyond excellent, the long-term care options preceding that time were filled with anxiety and frustration. Too little money to afford assisted living or private home care, she pieced things together, accepted mediocre services until they became more cumbersome to allow than to refuse. (The one exception was the man she found to drive her on errands. His name is Diego, and he could not have been kinder.) My mom worried, a lot, and she became sicker.

I was frustrated, because I am supposed to know my way around this. But then again, looking at the fantastic facilities where my mom died, considering the costs of those heroic efforts that many people do try, thinking of the enormous blessing that my mom’s Medicare and supplemental insurance will pay for it all… I imagine we can create long-term care services of similar quality. As we see the shift in the years to come from the sexy world of specialties and surgeries to primary care and prevention, we will feel the difference in our lives, all of our lives. We have to.

Written by Only Anecdotal

4 Feb 2013 at 5:26pm

Hot Summer Days

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This weekend was a lovely one, made all the nicer when I was able to see several friends. One group of us first met years ago, all of us divorced, and with children who have autism. We were talking Saturday evening about the paths we never expected, the challenges, the joys, the well-intentioned remarks from friends and family: “I just don’t know how you do it.” Well, you just do, and you learn. And most of all you accept it, this life. This full life, and the wonderful friends we meet in it.

Remembering the joy in our imperfect lives came at a good time for me, as last week was filled with the intensity I never used to see in summertime. In years past, referrals slowed, and people were more relaxed when I did see them. But this year, as most of the entire country is experiencing droughts and unbearable heatwaves, consumers I see are going through their own extreme situations.

I saw a man with a life-ending (not life-threatening, life-ending) illness. It is one of the rare cases where there is no wait period for Medicare for people on SSDI–and it is a rare situation where SSDI comes quickly, without appeal. In spite of this, he cannot access the medical equipment he desperately needs right now. And why? Because he moved from another state, and has applied and been assured he will get MassHealth Standard, but has been told he cannot have the equipment for sixty to ninety days, at which point, he probably will no longer be able to use it. Oh, and he cannot get a personal care attendant yet, either–that will probably take several weeks when he does have his insurance.

Another person was in a hospital, dying, if he has not died already sometime today. It all came about quite suddenly, and he was in the midst of making plans for his family’s future. It matters a lot in this case, you see: his biggest fear was leaving his adult son, who has mild developmental disabilities (read mild: not qualified for adult services).

Another man, also dying, is due to be discharged from short-term rehabilitation, but his family is exhausted from taking care of him. Their biggest need? a ramp–and sleep. Overnight services can be difficult to get without a substantial amount of money to spend, but not necessarily impossible. The ramp is not such a hard thing to get, but it, too, can be expensive. The man is probably eligible for programs that will help his family pay for what he needs, but paperwork takes time–and time is what he does not have.

All told, nineteen referrals later, I am left somewhat shaky and bereft, I admit. And then, I wonder what could change these sorts of situations. After all, people die. They die everyday, sometimes suddenly, sometimes quite slowly. But the biggest problem in all of this is our absolute refusal to contemplate death, especially when we are healthy. We have enough trouble discussing illnesses and accidents and disability, but death seems nearly imaginable.

It is a funny thing to consider. We have lived for a long time in a world where miracles happen–relative miracles when I think of the stories I heard from older relatives, from neighbors, from older people in rural Vermont when I lived there. Mothers dying in childbirth, their newborns then dying too without a mother’s milk. Pneumonia. Flu. Infections. Death seemed tragic, but not unfamiliar–and yet, even if we can prolong life now, it always ends. Are we just distracted? Have we figured out ways to see only what we want to see in our everyday lives? I wonder.

Morbid obsession is hardly the answer, but I wonder in the three situations I mentioned if the anxiety that the families are now facing would be the same if we were to embrace the finite joy of our lives, the possibility of abrupt changes, if we were to embrace the uncertainty that our lives always contain. The bureaucracy and confusion that these families are facing is very real., and particularly difficult in the face of serious illness–but also a very difficult system to change if the illnesses that precipitate the need for prompt services bring up subjects that we fear so much.

Of course, these families are reacting now with love, with grief, and with the best that they can give. But when a topic becomes impossible to discuss, it becomes isolating, as well. And this is truly frightening. It is the society in which we live that shuns death, that shields us from imperfection, or tries to make it pretty. I wonder if we would find it easier to discuss death if we felt the ugly and beautiful lives of those around us–the sick, the aging, the dying–not with pity, but with the true understanding that they are we.

Written by Only Anecdotal

23 Jul 2012 at 9:05pm