I had promised my Mom that one day I'd write the story of her 2007 near-death experience, but didn't commit to when, or the vehicle for sharing it. Then I did The Moth twice and pressed to get its main stage show brought to Charlotte (the 12-minute stories vs 5 minute StorySlams). And it worked. And I was scheduled to be in it. And I needed a story. And the light bulb went on.
My Mom's 87th birthday was just a few days before the show and she was going to be in Alaska visiting my sister Sandy. That meant that she'd have to fly from Anchorage, stop by her apartment in Sun City AZ and catch a flight to Charlotte. I told her that I had a very special show for her to see, but didn't say what it was and certainly didn't provide her with a clue that I'd be telling her story. On stage, in front of a bunch of people, with her in the front row. Surprise!
The show went wonderfully well, as did my story, and our host Ophira Eisenberg introduced my Mom afterward as the lighting crew turned the spotlight on her. She reluctantly stood up and waived, the audience cheered and whistled, and I noticed that the front of her beaded blouse was wet and coated in something shiny. She had cried all the way through the story and her nose ran and she wasn't about to let people around her know she'd been crying (being a "do NOT make a fuss, Midwest non-alarmist recovering Swedish Lutheran"). Guess she didn't consider the spotlights - oops!
What a wonderful experience...
Here's the story - "The Woo Woo Oops"
So I get a call one morning from my sister Sarah from a hospital in
She says that my Mom is very ill – she’s gone
into septic shock, her blood pressure is dangerously low, she’s incoherent and
she’s struggling to breathe. And we have
a life or death decision to make. The
doctors have told her that unless we put my Mom on a ventilator, she’ll die. Sun City AZ.
Now you have to understand that my Mom has told us many times in no uncertain terms what her end of life wishes are, and they don’t include any extraordinary measures – no wires, no tubes, no fuss. She’s said that she’s lived a good long life, and when her time comes, she’s ready to go. And we all respect that, and have always intended to honor that. But it doesn’t make sense that she could be so sick so fast – she’s been so healthy. Just last week we were all together at Sarah’s wedding, and as I walked her down the aisle, there in the front row sat my Mom, fabulously dressed as always, the picture of health, just beaming with pride and joy – well, a little annoyed with bugs and mosquitoes that were flying around. But seriously, she was totally healthy. And now she’s dying?
So I arrange a conference call for my family to discuss what to do. So a little background on my family: I have 3 sisters. The oldest is
, and she’s very direct and
practical. The next in line is Susan,
and she’s bigger than life, and very spiritual – I call her “woo woo”. And then there’s me and my younger sister
Sarah, and we’re very rational - I’d say we’re “practically” spiritual. And like many siblings, we love each other
but over the years we’ve sort of drifted apart and back together. But the one thing will always do is rally
around my Mom. And then there’s my
Mom. She is the original Sandy Midwest, non-alarmist, recovering Swedish Lutheran. “Do not make a fuss.” Not “Don’t make a fuss.” “DO NOT make a fuss.”
So my family gets on the conference call and we start discussing what to do. And my Aunt Gwen is on the call, my Mom’s sister, and she says immediately and very firmly, “Your mother does not want to be put on a ventilator.” And we say, “We know, and we don’t want that either, but what option do we have?” And
says, “Well I see 3 options: we can put
Mom on the ventilator for a few days, the doctors miraculously discover what’s
going on, she recovers and life is good.
Or, we can not put her on the ventilator and she dies. Or, God forbid, we put her on the ventilator,
she wakes up but she’s got half a brain, she’s partially paralyzed and pissed
off at us for the rest of her life – oops.” Sandy
And I understand why
Sandy says Mom would be pissed
off at us for the rest of her life because in addition to being a Midwest, non-alarmist, recovering Swedish Lutheran, my
Mother also does not suffer fools easily.
When she sold her house and moved into her apartment, her real estate
agent dropped by, and he’d done a good job for her. And he started going on about how Rush
Limbaugh is the smartest man on the face of the planet, and she looked at him
and said, “I don’t think I like you. You
need to leave.” That’s my Mom, and
that’s the woman we’re trying to make the right decision for.
So finally I say, “Look, if we don’t put Mom on the ventilator, she’s going to die. And we won’t know why. And do we really want to go through the rest of our lives wondering if that was the right decision?” So against my Mom’s wishes, my sisters and I decide to put my Mom on the ventilator for a few days to give the doctors time to try to figure out what’s going on. And we all fly out to
Sun City, and I
take the longest shuttle ride I’ve ever taken in my life. When I get to the hospital, it’s
horrible. My Mom’s in a coma and her
face is distorted from the ventilator and tape.
And at this point the doctors tells us that they’re 100% convinced that
my Mom has a bacterial infection because of her symptoms, and most probably a
urinary tract infection, because 4 other elderly woman have died of urinary
tract infections in that hospital in the past week. So my sisters and I assign ourselves to
shifts round the clock, staying with my Mom.
And the doctors administer massive doses of antibiotics, and fluids to
maintain her blood pressure. And this
goes on for several days, with the doctors saying, “We think we know what’s
going on – just give us another 24 hours.”
And it’s awful. And the
antibiotics aren’t working. And one by
one, my sisters reach the decision that it’s time to let my Mom go. And I’m just not ready to let my Mom go.
So I take the overnight shift, and about 5:30 in the morning, it’s very quiet in ICU and I’m about to doze off in a recliner when I happen to look over at my Mom. And my heart stops. She’s in a coma, but her eyes are open. And they’re black as coal. And she’s looking at me. And her right hand is pawing at the ventilator. Suddenly my cell phone rings and I jump up to grab for it, and it’s my rational sister Sarah calling from my Mom’s apartment. And she says, “John! Mom won’t let me go to sleep. Every time I start to doze off she comes to me in my dreams and she’s telling me that she wants us to take her off the ventilator. She’s terrified that her body might be getting better, but that her brain won’t. And John, she wants you to know that she knows you’re the last one holding out hope – and it’s okay to let her go.”
Now all this time I’m looking into my Mom’s coal black eyes and she’s pawing at the ventilator. And then it’s like an invisible hand very gently nudges me over a threshold. And I realize it’s time to end this. So I say to my Mom, “Okay, when the doctors come in, we’ll have them take out the ventilator, I promise.” And with that, her eyes close and her hand drops to her side, and Sarah says, “John! I’ve lost her – she’s gone!” And I think, “Has she died?” And I look at my Mom and I look at the monitor – and her heart’s still beating, and she’s breathing. Now, I am not a woo woo person. But I know what I just saw. So when the doctors come in my family meets with them and we tell them that we want to remove the ventilator. And at first they object and say, “Your mother will die.” And we say, “We know. We can’t watch this anymore.”
And so we make our way in to say our good-byes. And at 9 o’clock, we gather around my Mom’s hospital bed. And the nurse very, very gently, takes out the ventilator. And we wait. And wait. And WAIT. And the monitor isn’t changing. Mom’s not dying and she’s not waking up. And the doctor says, “Well, this certainly isn’t what we were expecting!” And all I can think is, “Half a brain, partially paralyzed, pissed off at us for the rest of her life… Oops!” And we don’t know what to do. And I’m exhausted so I go back to my Mom’s apartment to get some sleep. And I have this terrible nightmare of my Mom, limping around her hospital room, beating me with a bedpan, screaming, “I said no ventilator!” And then my cell phone rings and wakes me up. It’s Susan calling from the hospital, and she says, “John…” “Mom’s awake. She just tried to say a couple words and I think she’s gonna be okay.” And that night, my Mom is fed her first tiny taste of apple sauce. And the next day, she grips the spoon in her fist and she brings it to her lips. And each day after that she gets better and better.
So I call her bacteriologist because we haven’t heard from her in a few days to ask her what caused all this. And she says, “Didn’t anyone tell you? I’m not on your mother’s case anymore. She doesn’t have a bacterial infection. Your mother has West Nile Virus.” And I think, “West Nile Virus?! That’s not necessarily fatal. Sure it’s bad in an older person, but people recover from it all the time.” So that means that by going against my Mom’s wishes initially and putting her on the ventilator, we kept her alive long enough to learn that she didn’t have a fatal illness. But we didn’t know that and nearly killed her because no one told us? Now I’m really pissed. So I say to the doctor, “You mean to tell me that because you didn’t tell us what was going on, we had to go through the hell of making the decision to let my Mother go, and we didn’t have to?!” And she says, “Uh, Mr Lincoln, you tried to let your mother go on Wednesday. The test results came in on Thursday…” Oops.
And at this point this whole thing has gotten so crazy. And then suddenly it dawns on me that it makes perfect sense that my Mom has West Nile Virus. She’d gotten bit by a mosquito at my sister’s wedding. But why did the mosquito bite her? Oh, because when we were there, we all stayed at the Berthoud Bed & Breakfast – it’s this old Victorian that has themed rooms, and I’d taken care to assign my Mom to just the right room, and I’d given her … the Cleopatra Room. Cleopatra,
West Nile Virus. Then I think, “Oh God. I’m woo woo!”
So once my Mom recovers, I finally get up the nerve to ask her THE question: whether she regrets that we put her on the ventilator. She thinks about it and she says, “Oh no. No I don’t regret it. You made the right decision. And the way you kids came together was just wonderful. No I don’t regret it. Just don’t EVER do it again!”
And who knows? Next time? You have to make a lot of hard decisions when you’re looking death in the face, and the right answer isn’t always what the person says they want. But I do know this. Somehow, through love, a little laughter, and some way weird woo woo, we managed to save my Mom’s life. But I know this too: I never EVER want to go through another case of… the woo woo oops.