Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My Mother Died Yesterday

It may seem an odd time to begin a blog. At the moment, I am using it to distract myself. I'm trying to offer a somewhat detached view of what has happened. I know things are done differently among families and towns, even in the United States. I'm sure it would be interesting to know how people do things around the world.

It all happened very suddenly. On the last Saturday in June we had a big family gathering. My youngest sister's youngest son had graduated from high school. It is traditional to have an "Open House" party with lots of food and beverages for friends and family to celebrate. I worked for days helping my sister clean. Her daughter and I chopped mountains of fruit and vegetables. My mom was not ill, but she was a heavy smoker and never exercised much. We were careful to give her one simple task. To sit and 'roll' slices of ham and then place a toothpick to hold it together. She sat and did that and everything was fine.

The party was wonderful, things went well. My mom and dad left a little earlier than usual, saying she had a headache. It was a noisy gathering, and a hot and humid day. No one was very concerned.

My parents had invited us all to brunch the next day. "Brunch" is what people here call a meal that occurs around 10 or 11 a.m.. It is not quite breakfast, not quite lunch. Another sister and her family had come in from Nebraska for the graduation party, and were driving home that afternoon. We had a nice meal and everyone went home.

The next morning my dad found my mom on the floor. She had fallen on her way to the bathroom. She probably had laid there a few hours. Due to the way their house is set up (and he's a little hard of hearing) he wouldn't have heard her. But we don't know that she called out at all. We learned later that she had three strokes within seconds of each other.

That early morning call was startling. At first there is so much confusion of information. I live about twenty miles away--and due to traffic and road conditions it's about a forty minute drive. My sister (who had just had the party) lives nearby. She arrived at the hospital at the same time that the ambulance reached there. She kept us posted on any news. Various tests were run, doctors were too busy to offer results. My mom was moved to a room. She was responding a little bit, would speak a few words and answer questions correctly. Her left side was weak, but not paralyzed.

Let me stop for a moment and say, my parents have some of the best insurance average Americans can have. I have no insurance. That's another story. But they are fortunate, my dad was a steelworker back when the unions were strong. He was able to keep good coverage when he retired. So as I complain here about the slow trickle of information and so on, it is not because they didn't have insurance.

I will also explain that I have three sisters and a brother. One sister lives in the same town as my parents. Another lives in Nebraska. I live with the other, and unlike me--she is currently employed. My brother and his family live a few hours away. However, he often comes to my parents hometown for appointments and meetings (he's a salesman).

Since we were assured that as much as they could tell my mom was doing well, we decided to sit with my dad in shifts. Both my sisters went to work. My brother had an afternoon appointment, so he came in early. I had a morning job interview, so I would 'relieve' him in the afternoon. None of us wanted my dad sitting there alone. But we knew that running tests can take hours and hours, and more hours before there were results.

In any case, just as they moved my mom to a regular hospital room the first test results came back and they discovered the three strokes. They moved her to intensive care and the rest of us hurried to the hospital.

She was still able to talk and respond. The doctors weren't sure where the blood clots had come from, or even where any were at the moment. They talked of a few more days in the hospital, then sending her to rehab for a few weeks.

Her blood pressure was still quite high, we were told that nowadays they didn't try to bring it down with medication when a person had just had a stroke. They had better recovery results if they waited a few days. She had difficulty swallowing, and we were told that they would probably put a feeding tube in the next day (Tuesday).

On Tuesday morning my sister went to the hospital. The doctor said that new test results showed that the position of the clot was such that they could not put in a feeding tube. They would run more tests. We waited hours and hours. My mom still stayed the same. Finally, the doctor came and said that 'it didn't look good'. They would wait twenty four hours and run more tests. I was frustrated, but that was my problem. Anyway, my mom had the stroke on Monday. On Wednesday we were finally told that the clots were in her brainstem and fluid was placing pressure there. It didn't look like there was anything they could do. Even though she seemed to be improving, she probably wouldn't. We had to prepare ourselves for the worst. My sister and her husband in Nebraska had only been home a few days, but decided to head back here.

On Thursday the doctor called us in and said she definitely was going to die. My mom had indicated no 'extraordinary measures' in her medical care. They suggested placing her in Hospice care for her remaining days. Since they couldn't feed her, and would be removing oxygen and i.v.'s, it would be a matter of days most likely. Fortunately, they were sure that she was not in pain. And my mom was still responsive, still could speak a few words and understand questions. She always responded that she was not in pain.

My dad went and explained to her what the doctor had said. He asked her if she understood and she said yes. He asked her if she wanted to go to Hospice, and she said yes. He asked her if she understood that Hospice is where people die, and she said yes. Imagine having that discussion with your wife of 50+ years.

So we moved her to Hospice. For various reasons, home care Hospice was not practical. This was a wonderful alternative. The room was lovely, and much more peaceful than the noise and crowding of other patient's families at the hospital. We brought in vases filled with flowers from her garden. CD's with her favorite music. A few of her favorite movies. She still could respond and recognize people the first day or so. Then she slowly deteriorated, and went in to herself.

They explained to us that this would happen. That as the person dies they slowly draw away from the living. As they near death, they will even pull away from touch. This happened with my mom. She lived a few days in Hospice, each she was a little less there. By Sunday, just one week from the day we all gathered for brunch, she wasn't responding at all. She died Tuesday morning, July 7, 2009.

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