As of this posting day, it’s been 30 long years since my father and I last conversed… since I had wished him good luck just prior to his gurney ride into the “theatre”, where his surgeon would soon discover his efforts were too little / too late. Indeed, the colon cancer, which he had already suspected, had gone on a metastatic rampage.
Dad, having been in fearful denial of the seriousness of his health problems, had left the pre-surgery Advanced Directives page blank. This meant, by default, his doctor was obligated to save his patient’s life at all costs… even when the chances for recovery were hopelessly grim. And, indeed, it had been the good doctor’s operating room heroics, ALONE, which had prevented Dad from dying right there on the table.
Further complicating matters were my father’s lifelong obesity and addiction to cigarettes, cigars and pipe… all of which had rendered him ventilator dependent.
Although I had not eye-witnessed that harrowing, life or death, O.R. scene, personally, I have little doubt every dramatized TV hospital show I had ever viewed would’ve paled in comparison.
And so, by default, my Dad’s fate was now left up his wife. Of course, since my Dad had been “programmed” in an era where misogynist society had ignorantly regarded wives subservient… he had always been the decision maker in their marriage. Ergo, my Mom had been ill-prepared to make any decisions at all. As for life or death decisions? Forget it!
More significantly, the love in her heart would not permit her to see the futility of her fighting for her husband’s life. Admittedly, the love in my heart would not allow me to see the light / let Dad go into the light, either.
True, his doctor did frequently talk to me… restate his plea for compassion… point out how inhumane these hospital heroics actually were. Admittedly, I did experience fleeting moments where I could view this dispassionately… concur that… to quote the good Doc’s increasingly exasperated words… “We should stop beating on a dead horse!” On some level, I did understand how the inability and unwillingness to “pull the plug” was only causing my father pointless, endless suffering… and more pragmatically… how our indecisiveness was tying up medical personnel, supplies and equipment that patients, who did have a far better chance for survival, so desperately needed.
For the next six weeks, only ICU heroics continued to keep my Dad alive. Amazingly, he did rally… oh, so briefly got off that ventilator, which finally allowed him to speak. However… his utterances had been reduced to mere, unintelligible yammering… the only things sounding even remotely human being his yawns and snoring. A hell of a fate for a learned man who had earned multiple college degrees and had spoken so eloquently.
I suppose you could say, in a sense, my Dad’s actual place and time of death had been on that operating room table, on this very day, Tuesday, September 20, 1988… approximately 9 a.m.
Returning to the here and now… and at the risk of sounding too preachy… the moral to this story is that we must always do our very best to take care of ourselves… concede that, in spite of our best efforts, our bodies will, inevitably, fail us. Ergo, we must accept our mortality. To that end, it’s imperative that we always clearly communicate our realistic, advanced directives to the medical professionals we encounter in our lives.
What better way to show our love for our families than sparing them the needless angst of deciding our fates for us.