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A Life Worth Ending

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The rate of hospitalization for all other age groups is declining or holding steady, but for people over 65 it’s skyrocketed. The elderly use 50 percent of all hospital days, according to one study. Emergency rooms, the last stop for gangbangers and the rootless, at least in the television version, are really the land of the elderly, and their first step into the hospital system—where, as Medscape matter-of-factly explains, the “inability to recognize normal aging changes … raises the chances of iatrogenic illness.” Iatrogenic illnesses being the ones caused by hospitals or doctors.

My mother went to the Atria’s after-­dinner movie—The African Queen, as I ­recall—one evening in May and then told someone she was short of breath. My sister got to the emergency room first—St. Luke’s Roosevelt—and called me to say I ought to come.

Everybody would manage his or her parent’s decline differently. Nobody is proud of himself. We all mess it up. This is partly because there is no good outcome. And it is partly because modern medicine is a random process without a real point of view and without anyone ultimately being in charge. The buck is ­relentlessly passed. Down this rabbit hole, we all become ineffective and pitiful.

My mother’s cardiologist, Dr. Barbara Lipton, a peppy younger woman who, annoyingly, called my mom “Mom,” had been for many years monitoring her for a condition called aortic stenosis—a narrowing of the aortic valve. The advice was do nothing until something had to be done. If it ever had to be done.

This was good advice insofar as she had lived with this condition uneventfully for fifteen years. But now that she was showing symptoms that might suddenly kill her, why not operate and reach for another few good years? What’s to lose? That was the sudden reasoning and scenario.

My siblings and I must take the blame here. It did not once occur to us to say: “You want to do major heart surgery on an 84-year-old woman showing progressive signs of dementia? What are you, nuts?”

This is not quite true: My brother expressed doubts, but since he was off in Maui, and therefore unable to appreciate the reality of, well, the reality of being near, we discounted his view. And my mother protested. Her wishes have always been properly expressed, volubly and in writing: She urgently did not want to end up where she ultimately has ended up. She had enough sense left to resist—sitting in the hospital writing panicky, beseeching, ­Herzog-like notes, to anyone who might listen—but of course who listens to a woman who scribbles such notes?

The truth is you’re so relieved that someone else has a plan, and that the professionals with the plan seem matter-of-fact and unconcerned, that you disregard even obvious fallacies of logic: that the choice is between life as it was before the operation and death, instead of between life after the operation and death.

Here’s what the surgeon said, defending himself, in perfect Catch-22-ese, against the recriminations that followed the stark and dramatic postoperative decline in my mother’s “quality-of-life baseline”: “I visited your mom before the procedure and fully informed her of the risks of such a surgery to someone showing signs of dementia.”

You fully informed my demented mom?

The operation absolutely repaired my mother’s heart—“She can live for years,” ­according to the surgeon (who we were never to see again)—but left us longing for her level of muddle before the valve job. Where before she had been gently sinking, now we were in free fall.

She was reduced to a terrified creature—losing language skills by the minute. “She certainly appears agitated,” the psychiatrist sent to administer anti-­psychotic drugs told me, “and so do you.”

Six weeks and something like $250,000 in hospital bills later (paid by Medicare—or, that is, by you), she was returned, a shadow being, to 86th Street and her assisted-living apartment.

Unmoored in time, she began to wander the halls and was returned on regular occasions to the emergency room: Each return, each ambulance, each set of restraints, each catheter, dealt her another psychic blow.

And then we were evicted. I had been pleasantly surprised when my mother moved in that only a month-to-month lease was required. Now I learned why. Dying is a series of stops, of way stations, of signposts. Home. Assisted living. Nursing care. Hospice. You are always moving on.

But before we were evicted, there was another Thanksgiving—this one at my house, my mother collected and transported, my children reassembled—and then the next day, the “event.” The big one.

We had reached, I gratefully believed, her end.

EMS arrived, and once more, we were back in the St. Luke’s emergency cubicles. My mother’s “presentation” could not have seemed bleaker. The young resident was clearly appalled that we might have strayed outside the time frame for administering the drug that could slow the effects of what surely seemed to be a stroke. Of course, they were yet game to try. But we held our ground: We elected to do nothing here (prompting much renewed scrutiny of the health-care proxy). And please note the DNR. Hours passed. I left and came back. My sister left and came back. One of my mother’s aides left and came back.


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