What’s This Plug For Anyway?

March 29, 2005 at 11:58 pm (Pop Culture on Parade)

I, like the rest of the country, have been listening to, reading and seeing the tons of publicity concerning the case of Terry Schiavo. I will not link to any websites concerning the case–opinions have been like assholes on this subject so use Google and check out all the viewpoints you can find that way. Not only has the mainstream media done its part to stage this circus sideshow, nearly every blog I read has a post on it. I will also not express my personal opinion on Terry’s life and death here, nor will I post “what I want done when…” either.

Instead I’m going to practice what I preach–I’m going to write out my Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney, documents every single bit as important as your Last Will and Testament. The Living Will outlines exactly what you want to happen in the event you can’t tell your doctor how you want your treatment to be done; the Health Care PoA tells the doctor who to listen to when you can’t talk yourself.

Here’s where my non-humble opinion comes in. I’ve been on both sides of this fence.

I was a Certified Nursing Assistant for many years (I could be now too–I’d need a 2 week class to refresh my credentials and a back capable of doing the work). I worked in nursing homes–exactly the place where Advance Directives apply the most. I cared for many, many people in all stages of life, all the way from “I just need a little help here and there” to “Mom is about to go and we want the best for her.” I was lucky–the scope of my work didn’t include giving actual orders, but it did include finding folks in various stages of “passing on.” That’s when those directives helped me personally–it meant the difference between running like hell and grabbing the nearest RN and quietly kissing a no-longer-furrowed brow, covering my charge, and trying not to cry while I told the nurse.

Now, for the other side of the fence. I don’t talk about Rich much. Those of us fortunate enough to know him will never forget, and there’s just no way to explain him to anyone who’d never met the man. I will always miss him. Unfortunately, Rich had a disease that eventually killed him–alcoholism. He likely set a record for the highest number of visits to the local Alcohol and Other Drug treatment center. The longest he stayed sober was the last four months of his life–it took him nearly all his too-short life to find what it took to recover.

I’m not going to go into the details that led up to needing to implement the documents he filled out a couple years before his last illness–they’re not the point here. The point is, about two years before he died, he was hospitalized with a complication of the cirrhosis that was taking him away from us. He did very nearly die then, and that’s when he realized that his mom just would not be able to make the hard calls he wanted made. He knew he didn’t want heroic measures–no tubes, no CPR to kick-start his heart, no respirator, no heart-lung machines–when God wanted his ass home, he was ready for Him to take it. He’d told his life’s love, C-man, and I both how he wanted to go when it looked like it was his time.

Six of us sat down then-Rich, C-man, Mama J, Rich’s doctor, myself, and the only nun I’ve ever been able to stand, Sister C. Sister C had all the papers, Rich had almost all the answers. We spent about two hours poring over the long lists of interventions–all the way from “Tylenol or aspirin” to “Are you certain you’re not comfortable with receiving liquids thru a feeding tube?” The Doc was in and out, a necessary part of her job, but she was there enough to be certain every single check-mark beside every single bright idea the medical community has ever come up with was 100% Rich’s wishes.

The last part of the process was very touchy. Rich hadn’t told his mother yet that he didn’t want her to be the one to make the final decisions. He knew she wouldn’t be able to handle telling the Doc that there would be no respirator or tubes or anything that would just keep his trashed body breathing. His brothers would have been even less capable of letting him go. He took a deep breath and said, “Ma, I love you more than life. But you wouldn’t be able to tell them not to keep me alive. I want C-man and SSS to tell them all what we said here. I don’t want CPR when my heart stops. I don’t want machines. When it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go. I have to be sure that there’s someone that makes sure no one stops me when it’s time.”

She smiled, took him in her slender little arms and said, “That’s the most loving thing you’ve ever done for me. I know you want to go but you’re my son–I could never tell anyone not to keep you here, even when you needed to go.” She kissed her 34 year old son, so small in that hospital bed, then hugged both C-man and I close to her. “You’re family, just like his brothers, and you will always be family. Don’t forget that and don’t let my son down.” He signed the forms Sister C filled out in her tight, neat hand, then both C-man and I signed with one of the nurses as witness. The forms were notarized and filed in his medical record.

We didn’t let him down. When the time came, he went peacefully, comfortably and with the dignity life didn’t always allow him to have, without tubes, machines or electric gorillas jumping on his chest to make his still heart beat again. I don’t remember a lot about the week after that–I was in shock, even though I knew the day was coming when we’d have to let him go. I do remember the years since Rich died tho. His mom still calls C-man and I “hers,” and one of his brothers, Dr. Space, used to call me about once a month or so, just to talk. I didn’t mind, even if those calls were usually at 4:17 am on Sunday morning. That’s just the way Dr. Space was–he had to have a snootful to look at the hard things, so I didn’t bitch. Much.

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