If truth and reality concerning impending death and necessary decisions bother you, then stop reading right now. Just over three years ago, my Father passed away – and nothing has ever hit me that hard before or since. I’m going to tell you about the last moments of my Father’s life – and what transpired in the days before. What I won’t describe is what led to that awful situation … nor will I discuss the funeral or things related to the funeral because I want to focus specifically on what every one of us fears most – making the decision to remove a parent from life support, and watching the consequences unfold.
I’m currently 43-years old, and all of this happened when I was 40. I had never before been involved in a decision to remove someone from life support … although I had seen my Father make such a decision with his Mother (my Grandmother) several years prior. With respect to my Grandmother’s death, I was very much a bystander … but I was still fairly horrified at the decisions being made, and how things went. She had become vegetative after a stroke, and my Father made the decision to bring her home – and to remove her feeding tube … so that she would pass quietly at home … which she did after many relatives came to visit. Wait – “remove the feeding tube”? That is correct – and that is what horrified me at the time. I was told that since Grandmother was not on a respirator, that this was how death with dignity was achieved in a vegetative situation. I remember thinking to myself how hard it must have been for my Father to make such a decision involving his Mother.
Now fast forward to three years ago. My Father had been hospitalized for voluntary but necessary surgery to correct an aortic aneurysm … a weakening of the aortic wall that causes it to bubble outward. Without surgery to correct this condition, the aortic wall will eventually burst – which causes death from internal bleeding within minutes. I’ll bypass the details of the surgery, and bring you up-to-speed with the final situation. Dad had a lot of post-surgical complications – which I will also skip. Maybe someday I’ll write about all of that. Maybe not. Anyway – roughly two months after the surgery, Dad was in a coma … and I found myself sitting in a conference room in the hospital with my Father’s wife (not my mother – this was his second wife). The doctor came in, and explained to us that my Father’s condition was deteriorating … and that even though he had an “advanced directive” stating that no heroic means should be used to save him, that basically his wife needed to decide what to do. Somehow this seemed confusing to us at the time – and so I asked him to elaborate. He said that my Dad was currently suffering – which hurt me to hear. The doctor said that as my Father’s condition continued to deteriorate, they could do things like beat on his chest and perform CPR, possibly attempt emergency surgery, etc. – but that the end-result would be the same, and that such things would overly traumatize both my Father and the family. The doctor was recommending that his wife decide to take him off of life support – specifically, to shut off the respirator that was keeping him alive.
Wait – “his wife needs to decide”? But I am his only son – a true blood relative. I politely asked what determines who gets to make such a decision, and was told that the hospital accepts the decision of a spouse over even the advanced directive. Somehow it seemed wrong that I (his only son) was not allowed to decide – but I had the ear of his wife, and could influence her. And there was time to decide, as Dad was slowly deteriorating … not quickly spiraling downward … not yet. Dad’s wife told the doctor that she would meet with him again in a day or two, and discuss what she thinks.
In the weeks prior to this meeting with the doctor, many of Dad’s friends and relatives came to visit. What they saw was a shadow of the man they knew. Especially in the days before he became completely comatose, he was awake and talkative – but all the medication had seemed to affect him … because he spoke incoherently about everything. I remember sitting there, and listening to him talk … making no sense whatsoever … and I would respond with things like, “Everything is going to be fine, Dad – don’t worry” … and “The nurses here are really nice – how lucky you are” … and “Look what a nice day it is outside today”. I’ll never know if he really understood me, and maybe thought I was being an ass for talking to him like he was a child … he didn’t seem mad at me at the time, he just kept talking and talking about no one knows what. It was really hard to see my Dad that way. Continued on next page >>>