Sunday, October 12, 2014
In Memory of Mom
Two years ago this time I got a phone call from my sister saying that my 87-year-old mother was about to have emergency surgery. An aortic aneurysm she’d had for many years had begun to expand and was close to bursting. My sister put my mom on the phone to talk to me and we had a quick chat, with her saying she’d gotten herself into another “silly mess.” We joked about it and I told her I’d pray that all would go well.
She’d had a couple of other surgeries in the few years before this, and had come through with all flags flying. Although I knew the surgery was critical, I expected her to get through it okay. Still I waited on pins and needles. My sister called later to say that the surgery appeared to have gone well and Mom was in recovery. I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
But the next morning I got another, much grimmer call. Sometime in the middle of the night, as Mom came out of the anesthesia, the nurses had noticed Mom couldn’t seem to move her left arm and leg and her speech was slurred. She’d suffered a stroke either during the surgery or right after.
I live in North Carolina, but flew up to Massachusetts to be with her. I have two sisters and two brothers who live in the Boston area, but I needed to be there as well.
Over the next day or two, Mom seemed to be improving and the nurses talked to us about moving her into a rehab hospital in the next couple of days. Before that, though, the next complication struck. It seems that when the doctor inserted the shunt into her shoulder for the surgery on the aneurysm, he’d nicked a gland, and it was leaking lymphatic fluid (chyle) into her chest. She also had fluid in her lungs. They put in drains for both.
Unfortunately, she had difficulty swallowing due to the stroke, and the chyle leak meant a special intravenous food. And there’s where we hit the first major decision point. The special food they were giving her was not a long-term option, but the only other one was a risky procedure to try to plug the leak.
My mother had seen a lot of friends and relatives, including her husband, go through protracted and ugly deaths. She’d been very clear that she didn’t want any breathing or feeding tubes or other artificial life support.
The doctors refused to perform the procedure unless they could insert a breathing tube, so we had to decide whether the potential gain from the procedure outweighed my Mom’s horror of tubes. Fortunately for us, Mom was awake and apparently listening during one of the discussions with the medical people, and she told us that she wanted to do it. We never were entirely sure how much she understood, but her expressed wishes still carried the most weight.
The procedure was pronounced a success as the chyle leak was repaired. Once again, we prepared to move Mom to a rehab hospital. With the crisis past I went home after 10 days away, while my sisters helped her move. I was pretty elated. We knew Mom had a long, hard road ahead, but there was hope for a reasonable recovery.
Three days later I got another call. Mom was not doing well in the rehab hospital. She refused to eat and was losing weight (and she was a tiny woman to begin with). I prepared to fly back, but nature intervened this time, in the form of Hurricane Sandy moving up the east coast headed for the northeast. All flights into Providence and Boston were cancelled.
While I sat in North Carolina and stewed, waiting for the storm to pass and airports to re-open, my Mom deteriorated and the outlook grew increasingly grim. My mother was moved back to the hospital when she began running a fever and was diagnosed with an infection. They started her on antibiotics, which proved ineffective. When they switched her to a more powerful one, she had a terrible allergic reaction. It was pretty much the last straw. I finally got on the first plane out of my local airport heading for the northeast after the storm and arrived just as my siblings and I had to face the fact that Mom was now beyond any hope of recovery.
A great deal of tears went into the decision to move to palliative care only. The hospital was supportive, up to a point. Once they were no longer treating the infection, they wanted her out of their room as fast as possible. We moved her to a lovely, peaceful hospice home, where they made sure they kept her pain-free for the short time Mom had left. She died after fewer than 48 hours there.
The wound is less raw now, two years later, but I still miss her. RIP Patricia Goeller.