August 20, 2009
Mom and I sat side by side in a small conference room in Maine Medical Center. We were listening to a doctor explain, as gently as he could, that the time had come for us to make decisions about my father.
A few weeks earlier, Dad had undergone quadruple bypass surgery. He had recovered from it fairly well, but during his first night home from the hospital he suffered a massive stroke. After a few days back in the hospital, he slipped into a coma. Now we were facing the reality that he wouldn’t be coming back to us.
Dad’s condition, in the doctor’s opinion, was irreversible, yet with the feeding tube and ventilator in place, he could be kept alive indefinitely. The doctor asked if Dad had ever prepared an advance directive. The answer was no. As far as I knew, Dad had never said anything at all about what he would want in the circumstances we now faced.
Mom turned to me and said, “What do you think?”
“I think it’s your call, Mom.”
She was silent.
Finally I said, “If you don’t want to decide or if you can’t decide, Mom, I will.”
“I think you’d better,” she said.
I looked at the doctor. “Are you saying he can’t get well?”
It’s the kind of question doctors usually hate, but this doctor didn’t hesitate. “Yes, that’s what I’m saying.”
“We have to let him go,” I said. Then I was in tears and couldn’t talk anymore.
“We’ll keep him comfortable,” the doctor said.
Dad hung on for three more days.
All of this happened 15 years ago, and I still sometimes find myself wondering if I did the right thing. Should I have pushed Mom harder to make the decision herself? Should I have waited a few more days to decide? Should I have asked to talk to another doctor? Should I have just said we were going to wait for a miracle?
These are the hardest questions anyone can face. I did the best I could without much time to prepare or to think.
The kind of counseling that would have helped Mom and me, that perhaps would have led Dad to tell us what he wanted in advance may or may not have been widely available in 1994. But it’s available now.
Sarah Palin and her ilk, however, want to make sure health insurance won’t cover it. With her gift for twisting the truth beyond recognition, she calls such counseling “hav[ing] to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel‘ so his bureaucrats can decide” whether someone lives or dies.
It’s hard for me not to take that personally. I had to pull the plug on my own father. It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make in 63 years of living. I could have used some help.
That’s why I wrote to every member of my state’s Congressional delegation urging them to stand up to Sarah Palin and all the rest who want to derail healthcare reform. The story of my father’s last days is old news now, but families everywhere face the same heartbreaking dilemma every day.
Many opponents of healthcare reform don’t seem to care. If you’re someone who does care, however, it’s time for you to speak up.