Sunday, March 29, 2009


There's an old line -- from Al Franken, I think -- that "denial ain't just a river in Egypt." Our death-denying culture makes it hard for any family to accept that a loved one is dying. Sometimes it's the dying person who has to show the family the way.

Rebecca was well into her nineties with terrible lungs. To survive, she required the use of a BiPAP (pronounced with a long "i") machine. "Bi-level positive airway pressure" is a way to move air in and out of the lungs without the patient having to exert much effort. It's a breathing machine without a tube in the patient's throat. But it's not so pleasant for anyone, much less an old woman who'd been sick for a long time. There's a tight-fighting mask over much of the face that can induce terrible claustrophobia.

Rebecca's children told me that she'd been wanting to die for a long time. "She wants to join our dad," they told me. The three adult kids had been resisting their mother's entreaties, but now they were convinced. I went to the bedside. Rebecca was lucid when I asked her what she wanted. She pointed a wizened figure at the ceiling and mouthed, "Up. With him."

I spent a couple of hours with the children that day and the next, going over their understanding of their mom's illness and answering questions about how we might manage the withdrawal of the BiPAP. They told me over and over again, "Mom's wanted this for a long time, and she finally persuaded us." By the time we were ready, Rebecca was barely arousable. We gave some simple medications -- for shortness of breath, for anxiety, for congestion -- and took the mask off. She barely stirred. The children and the nurse working with me felt she was completely comfortable. Forty-five minutes later, her shallow breathing stopped. Then there were tears, and hugs, and prayers.

Everyone deserves a gentle passing from this world. To get there sometimes requires everyone in the family to look up and see what's coming. With quiet determination and her index finger, Rebecca got her family to see past their sorrow. I'm pretty sure she went up.

No comments:

Post a Comment