Tuesday, July 05, 2005

We Thought We'd Lost Mom

Dad got the call as I drove him home from the hospital. I saw his face fall Mom's surgeon explained something. I waited. Dad ended the phone call at last.

"What's wrong?"

"Mom's on a breathing tube. Her emphysema acted up. The Doctor says they may need to keep her overnight."

I felt my stomach drop with the news. My mother on a breathing tube? Coming out of recovery from breast surgery that way? She wouldn't understand what was happening. She'd freak out in no time.

"Is she definately staying overnight?"

"They'll decide at noon."

We raced up the New York State thruway to our exit. Mira called as we were getting off the highway. Dad told her the news. She had planned to do some grocery shopping. On hearing the news, she said she'd get some milk and then rush home. That was good. Dad could not stay with the baby by himself after his own surgery.

"As soon as Mira gets home, you need to get down there and find out what's going on," Dad said.

He looked so upset as we entered the house. With every step he took, his face winced in pain. He was in no shape to ride down to New York with me. "I'm so upset right now. I want to be with her," He said.

"I know. You're in no shape. She understands," I tried to reassure him. Of course, I knew my efforts were doomed before I spoke. Would I have felt reassured if Frankie were visiting Mira when I could not?

After a furious shower and a fluster of preparations, I took off for the City. I wasn't far south on the PIP when the traffic came to a halt. One of the two lanes of the parkway was closed with an accident. I wedged my way between two ambivelent drivers and diverted through Palisades village to reach 9W South. I got caught behind the last respecter of speed limits in New York State. After several skin-crawling minutes of frustration, I got on the PIP southbound again, further south thant he accident. Everything was clear until I hit the George.

The George is always jammed.

Stop and Go. Stop. and Go. Stop and. Go. I crawled to the Henry Hudson Parkway for the last leg of my trip to St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hopsital at John Jay Square. I parked the car at a steal of garage a block from the hospital. At last, things were looking up.

The front desk directed me to Ambulatory surgery on the fifth floor. I called her surgeon's office. A courteous woman stayed on the phone with me as I negotiated St. Luke's maze to find the right office. Finally, hospital staff led me to Mom.

I choked up when I saw her.

She lay asleep on her hospital bed. A long plastic tube stuck out of her mouth. A long clear hose connected the end that hung out of her mouth with a respirator. The staff had secured the breathing tube in her throat in such a way that her lip pursed around it as though she were smoking the world's widest cigar. Her languid face looked disturbed even in her sleep.

My mother was on a respirator. This was no breathing tube! This was the machine my grandmother--Mom's mother--withered away on even as she begged Mom to take her off. It was the days before healthcare proxies when a doctor's decision could tie a patient to inappropriate care with only the Court as a recourse. My mother absolutely never wanted to be on a respirator.

Dr. Murray approached me. He looked more like a college shooting guard then an associate surgeon. He greeted me warmly, but his face looked grave. His prognosis did not bode well for Mom.

"She stopped breathing when we extracted the breathing tube after the surgery. We reinserted it, but she didn't take to it well. We had to put her on the ventilator so she could breathe," he explained.

Somehow, her emphysema had caused the complication. Her lungs had become coated with a mucky fluid that prevented her lungs from drawing oxygen or releasing carbon dioxide. She was literally drowning. The Anesthesiologist and the staff needed to ventilate her while they treated her lungs for the fluid build up. That was why she slept. They had sedated her.

"Will she definately come off the respirator?"

"We believe so," Dr. Murray replied.

"Are you saying that she might not come off the respirator? That she might not be able to breathe on her own?"


My stomach dropped to my knees and then jumped to my throat. Every muscle that could tense tightened until it strained against my skeleton. I felt like I would tear myself apart. Suddenly I stood face to face with my mother's death. Her healthcare proxy clearly stated that she did not want to be kept alive by artificial respiration. If she could never breathe on her own, she would want the ventilator removed. I faced the possibility that I would have to make that decision as the acting proxy agent.

How could I do it?

The Anesthesiologists came by later, one at a time. The first had a much better prognosis. He believed that Mom would come off the respirator later in the day. "What she has is not that common, but it's not that uncommon, either," he said.

Since when did doctors talk like zen masters?

The second, a middle-aged woman from France, explained that her smoking had irritated the lungs to the point where the fluid could build up as it did. "She said she'd dropped down to half a pack a day," She explained.

"Wait. You mean she's smoking?"

Mom and Dad had quit together two years ago. At least, I thought that she'd quit.

It turns out that she was sneaking her smokes behind our backs. Mira and Dad had grown suspicious at one point. Dad just had a feeling. Mira thought she smelled smoke on her. One day I asked her.

"Of course not," She said.

She lied to me. The truth sank in like a brickbat to the back of my head. She had lied to me about smoking. Now she lay on a bed with a ventilator in her mouth and a breathing tube down her throat. Because she continued a deadly habit that she'd convinced the rest of us she had given up.

I made a few trips back and forth between the recovery room and a window ledge where I could use my digital phone. Dad and Mira were as disappointed as I about mom smoking, but were not as surprised. Dad's heart fell as hard as mine when he heard about the ventilator.

When I came in next, she had woken up. As soon as she saw me, she signaled for me to get the respirator out. She even tried to pull it out herself. I tried to explain why she needed it. I assured her it was temporary. She was having none of it. She signaled for a peace of paper. I pulled out my writer's journal. A nurse handed her a pencil. She wrote:
I want it out. I want to go home. It's my right.
Her words stabbed me between the ribs like a carving knife. She was demanding that I contribute to her death when she had hope! God bless her! God save her! Now, she may be Irish and strong-willed to no end. So am I. Her attitude fired me up. I faced an impossible decision because she had participated in a lethal habit behind my back. This would not stand.

I stared at her. When my eyes locked on hers, I said in the calmest and yet most intense voice I possess, "If they remove the ventilator before you're ready to breathe, you'll did. Do you want your grandson to see you in a box? Don't you want him to remember you?"

The fight faded from her eyes. Then the sedatives did their work. She fell asleep.

My next visit was almost my last. Hailey, the nursing shift supervisor of the recovery unit told me to leave. When I told her that another nurse had advised me that one person could visit a person in recovery, she told me in so many words that no one said that. I could see red flickering at the edge of my eyes. Locking my gaze on her, I used that low and compelling tone I used with the emotionally disturbed.

"My mother is in a vulnerable situation. She needs her family with her when she wakes up. I need to be here when she's conscious. If you will let me know when she wakes up, I'll leave."

Hailey had strutted the unit like Cleopatra inspecting an Alexanderan palace. Her facial expression and body language gave no one any doubt as to her confidence. They gave many doubts as to her capacity to respect others. Her conceit had nearly set me off. Only the Grace of God, the thought of my mother alone and my Special Education training prevented me from overreacting to her. Fortunately, she was as intelligent as she was arrogant. She agreed to my proposal. I left her my digital phone number on my way out of the unit.

Someone from recovery called me an hour-and-a-half later. My mother was awake. I rushed in and saw such a wonderful sight! I saw her face--and only her face. The anesthesiologist had removed the ventilator and breathing tube. She wore an oxygen mask now. She also looked more lucid. The anesthesia and sedative delirium in which she had acted before had disappeared. She smiled as she saw me.

"I told you I wouldn't let them leave you on this," I said.

She improved quickly after that. Soon she wore only a nasal tube. The color returned to her face. The nurses removed more and more medicine. Mom urged me to go home. When seven O'Clock rolled around and admitting still didn't have a room for her, I agreed. She had turned the corner. An overnight would just be for observation and prevention of a relapse. She breathed on her own and would soon completely recover. Meanwhile, they had her quite comfortable, if not a little bored, in recovery. I kissed her goodbye.

My mother made it when we thought we'd lost her. Her doctors and nurses worked tirelessly to help her recover. The Great Physician also made a call. When I sat in the ambulatory surgery waiting room, I found that Time Magazine article about Mary and the Protestants. When I read the account of the Passion in which Mary ran and comforted the fallen and crying young Jesus, I had to put the magazine down. I wiped a tear from my eye and refused the rest of them. My mother needed my strength, not my fear of losing her. I immediately prayed for Mary's intercession for my mother. I asked her to ask her son to heal my Mom. He did.

Mom rests in her room now. She was moved there at about 9:30PM. She's already spoken to my cousin and my father. May God in his infinite glory be praised! He has shown forth his mercy.

We thought we lost Mom. He found her.