Goodbye to Ann, Part II
In early May of 2013, my mother got out of a twelve hour surgery to remove scar tissue in her stomach. That scarring came from mis-aimed radiation therapy.
My father tried to visit her but he couldn't make it every single day, so I doubled up on the visits. During lunch, I drove from work to the hospital. Every weekday, I stopped in to talk with my mother. Usually, I added a Sunday trip with my family.
"Well, they tell me I have pneumonia," she said. "It's not good."
The amount of time she spent in surgery may have been critical. Twelve hours is a lot for someone with a pre-existing lung problem.
"Can you tell me if I'm on antibiotics?" she asked.
"Okay. Yes." After I walked around the room and checked her IV drips, I could see that she was on a steroid and an antibiotic. Her resting heart rate was high. She had received an insulin shot and was due for another one soon.
During my first few visits, my support role for her was to gather the information that no one else had conveyed yet. As she grew more lucid, that aspect of the visits faded. At the same time, the nurses started asking me to help my mother eat food. (For days, my mother would only sip Ensure. When I got her to eat ice cream, it was a breakthrough.) The staff also came over to ask about my mother's family. She had gotten mysterious phone calls, probably from her brother Johnny, but he wouldn't leave messages.
"We had to put mittens on her," a nurse told me after a few days. "She keeps having panic attacks and pulling on her cords."
"Why is her white blood cell count so high?"
"She has an infection." My face must have done something because the nurse followed with, "We don't know the source of the infection. We're looking."
The staff doubled up on antibiotics. They sedated my mother, too, and left her unconscious for a day in the hope of speeding up her recovery. It seemed to work. At the end of the week, my mother no longer needed to be intubated. The nurses had figured out my mother's hearing problems, too, and were trying to work around them. My mother was frustrated and sent me off with a directive to get her hearing aids, which my father wasn't able to find on his own. She gave me very specific directions.
On Wednesday of that week, my father talked to Kaiser Permanente. They agreed on a plan to move my mother in about a week's time. She would go from Holy Cross hospital to a rehab facility.
On the same day, Dr. Zhang at Holy Cross came in during my visit.
"If your mother wants to leave for rehab," he said. "She must be able to eat and drink. She's still being fed through a tube. She can't go. Do you understand? We must wait. She must work hard."
"Absolutely." It was obvious she wasn't ready. She couldn't eat and she couldn't brush her teeth.
That's why it was a shock to visit the next day and find that Kaiser had moved my mother to a different bed in the same room and also prepped her for another move.
"Isn't this too early?"
During the window of my visit, I personally got a call from Kaiser Permanente. Jocelyn from Kaiser told me that the next move wasn't within Holy Cross but was in fact a transfer to the Genesis Layhill Center. The insurance company was cutting out the doctor's planned week of hospital recovery and sending my mother to rehab.
That night, while I wasn't there, the company transferred my mother to Genesis Layhill. I got a call the next morning.
"Your mother is doing very badly," said the representative from Genesis Layhill. "Very, very badly."
"What are you doing about it?"
"We have transferred her back to Holy Cross." He sounded angry. "She will be there soon. You should try to meet her."
From that point on, the battle changed from getting healthy to staving off death. Holy Cross hospital put my mother back onto a respirator. Within a day, they moved her into the CCU, the cardiac care unit, because her previous respirator was not enough. My mother needed a pressure respirator to help pump her lungs.
Moving her onto a pressure respirator meant stopping her oral medications. During my visits, my mother took off her respirator mask to talk with me. That seemed a little risky but also like a good sign. Obviously, she could move her upper body well. She said she liked listening to me read her get well cards to her. One came in from her sister Lois that day and a bunch more came from Johnny.
"She seems like she's happier," my brother said. He and my father walked out of the building with more bounce to gaits.
"Yeah, her symptoms are stable."
"She's in less pain," my father added.
We all felt better than when my mother had arrived back at Holy Cross and needed critical care. In a few days, she had recovered from her near-death. On the other hand, her health was still not back to where it had been before the aborted transfer. The physician in charge, Dr. Zang, had a timetable in mind. My mother was no longer on it.
The next day, we skipped seeing her. Other family members visited to keep her company. Then, on Memorial Day, Diane and I drove down to Holy Cross.
When we came in, the staff seemed shocked and dismayed to see us.
"You just missed her," a nurse blurted.
"What do you mean? Has she been moved again?"
This time, the woman hesitated. She searched our faces for understanding.
"She was removed from oxygen. She didn't last long."
It took me a moment to understand. The hospital decision to remove her oxygen seemed so out of place. But they had done it. We arrived at 11:03. But at 11:00, a doctor had pronounced her dead.
We went in to see her. My mother's respirator and monitors had been turned off. The nurse told me how they had turned up the opiates. The drip that had been set up to slow and stop her heart was still in her arm. My mother had felt no pain, they said. Around her, I could see that someone had set up soothing music. The television screen showed a nature scene. Staff had drawn the curtains in the window opposite to leave the room in shade.
We stayed for a while. Our friends Richard and Andrea Price came. They offered to pick up our kids and bring them to my father's house, which seemed like a good idea. Lois, Mark, and Nattipa came, too. They had been planning a visit. We tried to make calls to folks who couldn't get to Holy Cross.
"Your mother wanted her body donated," my father told me over the phone.