Late last Thursday night, September 16, my husband Paul was taken by ambulance to our local hospital. After hours in the emergency room, he was admitted Friday morning at 5:30 am with overwhelming pain in his neck and across the top of his back.
Paul has a history of breathing problems, spinal pain, and atrial fibrillation—which is controlled by medication—so his doctor’s advice that he be hospitalized was taken seriously.
During the day Friday, September 17, he was visited by his cardiologist who was very assuring and explained to Paul that if things went wrong and he should confront a life-threatening situation, he and I would have to make some decisions. We told him that we understood this. Then we told the doctor that Paul had signed a Loving Will, and it is on file at the hospital and with his doctors. “Great” the doctor said, and he left.
So far so good. But his next visitors were two young female doctors from his pulmonologist’s office. The two doctors do hospital rounds for the practice. One of them, clearly the more experienced physician, explained the same thing to Paul that the cardiologist had explained, but she added comments that would lead any vulnerable hospitalized patient to feel stressed and that left him to wonder whether or not these two came to encourage him to die.
I hate to admit it, but that is also the way I heard their message. First of all, they said that if his breathing got worse and he had to be put on a ventilator, he would never get off. This is not true, but that is what they said to him.
They then explained to him that if his heart stopped, the efforts that would have to be made to restart his heart could be so seriously painful that his ribs might get broken because, as they said, “the paddles can cause severe pain and suffering.”
Such statements are overly broad, to say the least! But we decided to remain calm in our response. As my husband lay there with eyes wide open, I said to them, “He has a Loving Will on file with this hospital. We know all of our options and will discuss them if that time comes.”
To that they said directly to Paul, “We just want to make sure you understand. This is a lot think about, Mr. Brown, and we will give a moment to consider what we have said.”
After a good 60 seconds, they said, “Well, what do you think?”
He replied, “Do whatever you need to do to keep me alive. I have a lot of living left to do.”
The doctor doing all the talking said, “Are you sure? Remember what I told you.”
He said, “Yes, I am sure.” And thankfully the two of them left his room at that point.
He said little after that experience. I honestly think that, at the age of 83 and with so much confronting him, he simply did not want to say much.
But later, after thinking about all of it, he looked at me and said: “Today was death day. Those two women want me to die.”
If we had not experienced this together and if I had not been with him at that moment, I wonder what might have happened. Could he have had a heart attack from the stress of those few moments? I do not know.
What I do know is this: No older person who is suffering should ever have to be confronted with such a discussion. But clearly the younger generation has a different set of values when it comes to their older patients.
In spite of this, Paul is holding his own. He has serious health challenges ahead of him but worrying about dying should not be one of them.
I wrote about this because it is important for anyone reading this to be aware that the culture of death is not simply a phrase. The exemplars of it are alive and well. This is why the vulnerable elderly need protection, advocates, and love.
There was no love to be found in the young doctors who made last Friday death day.