Yesterday, I watched my best friend's mother die.
G. and I drove out to Newark in the morning to see how his mom was doing at the hospital. Because there had been false alarms before, I was kind-of thinking she'd be okay. She was tough. Little girls are made of sugar and spice, but little old ladies are made of gossamer and steel. We'd get there, she'd be awake and ready to be moved out of ICU. Then he and I would have lunch at his sister's house and head back home.
It wasn't to be.
We got to the dim room on the 2nd floor of the Licking Memorial Hospital, and she was unconscious in the bed. There was a big respirator tube in her mouth and an aspiration tube running from her right nostril down into her lungs. That tube was slowly drawing thick fluid the color of muddy water out of her lungs. The nurse said that she had double pneumonia in both lungs, a side effect of her late-stage emphysema. Her body was small and nearly skeletal, the sheet rising and falling just a bit as the respirator forced air into her pus-sodden lungs.
G. and his sister could see that their mom wasn't going to pull out of it. Fortunately, several years back she'd signed a Living Will (which the nursing home had and should have honored by not calling a rescue squad when she collapsed in the first place, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms).
So they eventually located their mom's doctor and showed him the papers. He called down to the ICU and told them they should turn off the respirator -- the only thing keeping her going -- whenever G. and his sister wanted it done.
They decided to have it done at 2:30 and called various family members to come to the hospital, then called for a priest. Turned out all the priests at their regular parish were away at some conference, but a helpful secretary at another parish got a priest out on the double. Father Ron, his name was. He was the same age as G.'s mom -- 71 -- and spoke with an accent that I think was Polish. He seemed a nice fellow, though the last rites seemed a little unfamiliar to him.
The worst was, G.'s mom came to when the priest was standing over her bed doing the prayer. The look on her face when she saw Father Ron and realized what was happening -- oh god. She was terrified. Who wouldn't be? She went into a small seizure, but the rites were finished and the priest went on his way.
His mom was still awake when the nurse finally came to remove the tube. The nurse was taking her time getting down the hall; I could see from the look in her eyes she was dreading this. It was the right thing to do, but you don't go into nursing to do things that will directly cause someone to die, do you?
The rest of the family had gotten there by the time the nurse arrived. Everyone was standing around her, holding her hands and talking to her. By then G.'s mom had, I think, come to grips that though she didn't want to die, she didn't want to live like this, either. So when they told her what was going to happen and asked her if she still wanted it, she nodded.
They took the respirator tube out at 2:35, then put an oxygen mask on her face. The nurse gave her a sedative, and, a few minutes later, a huge shot of morphine.
In the meantime we stood there, waiting for her to die. The only sounds were of G's sister quietly sobbing, and the hiss of the oxygen machine.
The waiting is indeed hard. You don't know whether to sit or stand, and it's kind of a moot decision, because there's only one chair in the room for seven people. You're afraid to leave the room to get a drink or use the restroom, because the end might come at any time. Your mind wanders, and then you feel bad about it, because a wandering mind seems disrespectful at a time like this. Your feet hurt, your back gets stiff, and no one says anything and you want to slap the nurses aides you can hear laughing down the corridor because someone's mother is dying in here, goddammit, show some respect!
I mainly watched the readout of her vitals, because it was hard to watch her struggle for breath: at first, her heart rate was jumping around like it had been all day, fluctuating between 85 and 110 beats per minute. But forty minutes after they turned the respirator off, forty minutes of her gasping into the oxygen mask, her heart rate dropped into the 80s. Then the 70s. Then lower and lower. It was around 15 when the nurse came back in to turn the monitor off and listen to her heart with a stethoscope.
She was pronounced dead at 4:10 p.m.