The circle of life is always moving; at times, it can bring feelings of unbridled joy and moments later it can make you feel like you’re ripping apart. It’s in these moments of highs and lows – along with the periods in between – individuals learn their coping mechanisms. The way individuals learn to process information and life situations will either help, hurt, or impact their ability to deal with a crisis once it happens --- and sometimes long afterwards.
For a couple of weeks earlier this year, my mom complained about a stomach pain. At first, I thought it was indigestion or that she pulled a muscle. However, she continued to complain about the pain and it also became more severe. At this point, after consulting with her physician, I took her to an emergency room (ER). After a few hours of testing, my mom was diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection. Initially I was relieved because it wasn’t anything more serious, but with my mom’s age any serious diagnosis could be life impacting or threatening.
The doctor provided a couple of treatment options. The first option was to admit my mom for observation, but the doctor quickly dismissed this approach. The second option was to treat her at home, which the doctor considered to be the best choice since my mom had a support system. Therefore, I took my mom home to rest and recover.
Less than 7 hours after my mom arrived home, she stopped breathing and was unresponsive. While lifting my mom’s head from a bent position to open her airway, her head bobbled and could be easily manipulated without any effort. As I attempted to keep her head back, I reached for the phone to call 911. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the paramedics to arrive. During the midst of this seemingly out-of-body experience, I maintained my composure until my mom was placed inside of the ambulance. It wasn’t until that moment that I started to become overwhelmed with emotions --- as this was the first time that I was directly confronted with the possibility that my mom could or would possibly die.
After my mom was readmitted to the ER, the medical team ran a battery of tests. Based on the doctor’s cursory examinations, there wasn’t a reason for my mom to have been unresponsive. As the second ER doctor continued her evaluation, she was very methodical in her approach. This doctor wanted to identify the issue’s source before diagnosing my mother’s condition. Then, about 5 hours later, the doctor in a very compassionate manner said, “I’m sorry, but there are early indicators that your mom’s heart is failing.” The doctor’s next question I never imagined that I would be asked. The ER doctor said, “If your mother’s heart fails, what do you want us to do?” The reality quickly overcame me as I realized that this doctor was asking me about the actions they should take if my mom started to die. The essential question for me was, “Should the medical team save my mother’s life or should they allow her to die?”
What?!?! A few hours earlier my mom was diagnosed with a respiratory infection. This time I’m told that she could be starting to die. This news was something I didn’t consider as a possibility, but it was now my reality.
After processing this unexpected message, I took a few moments to let out my emotions (reference my article: “Why Shouldn’t Men Cry?”). For a couple of minutes, I had to leave my mother’s bedside to grieve. Later, after regaining my composure, I began to make some difficult phone calls to my siblings. Each call conveyed a message about the risk of our mother’s heart failing, and information about the treatment plan. Then, the last part of each conversation was the toughest, I told them that if they wanted to tell our mother anything then they should do it now.
It was surreal to be in an emergency room with my mom while also thinking that these could be our final hours together. It was an absolutely horrible, painful, and heart-wrenching feeling. Nevertheless, I had an amazing sense of calm; it was almost too much --- if that makes sense.
In these very difficult and trying moments, the burdens of worrying about making the best decision can be overwhelming. This wasn’t an issue for me because my direction to the doctor was made a lot easier because of my mom’s proactive actions. Many years earlier, she communicated her medical treatment directions to our family. Our mom told us that she didn’t want to be kept alive artificially. Notwithstanding, she authorized water and nutrients to be administered to supplement her body, but she doesn’t want any extraordinary lifesaving measures performed. My mom said, “If I’m already gone, let me go; don’t try to bring me back.” As hard as this is to process, it’s her decision and direction.
As a result of this guidance, a few years ago due to my mom’s age and health, a couple of legal documents were executed; the first is an “Advance Healthcare Directive” and the second is a “Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)” order. Both of these documents are posted in a visible location near the front door of her residence, along with copies included with her hospital records.
Nothing can properly prepare anyone for the moment that a “live or die” decision must be made or someone dies. However, everyone can be ready for our inescapable and inevitable death by periodically letting those closest to you know that you love them. Moreover, everyone should ensure that family members understand their advance medical directions in the event a life-saving decision must be made on their behalf. Notwithstanding, the best thing to do is to legally document medical directives so that no one will have to decide someone’s fate under considerable stress and later wonder if the right choice was made at that moment.
Thankfully my mom is doing okay; I’m very happy, blessed, and grateful that my mother didn’t die that day!
educator, mental health advocate, social entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, author, writer/contributor, program executive, and radio host