Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mom's Last Days: The Facts (and a few feelings)

It's been 18 days since my mom passed away, and as you can imagine, I've had countless thoughts and feelings about everything... and let me tell you, God has really been changing me through this, in ways I didn't expect. But before I get into everything personal, I wanted to share the basic story of what happened for those of you who haven't heard the details.

Riley and I and the kids took a road trip to Midland to visit his sister and her family the weekend of 9/23-25. On the way there I called my mom to see if she could meet us in Abilene (about halfway between DFW and Midland) on the way back for dinner on Sunday (she lived in Novice, 40 minutes south). She agreed and we looked forward to the visit, especially since we usually only see eachother 2-3 times a year.

We had dinner at Cracker Barrel. Enjoyed the food, the visit, the beautiful weather outside, sitting in the rocking chairs on the huge patio out front, watching the kids race back and forth and racing with them, dancing and laughing and talking. It was great! We didn't know it was the last time she'd see us and talk to us. Had we, it wouldn't have been so sweet. I am absolutely certain now that that time together was a gift from the Lord.

Mom was feeling bad on Tuesday and Wednesday, stayed home from work and everyone including the doctor just thought she had the flu. Jimmy (my stepdad) let her have the bed to herself so she could be more comfortable with all the pillows she likes to sleep with. He checked on her every hour or so in the night to make sure she was okay. Early Thursday morning he went in and she wasn't talking straight. Then she had a seizure and started gasping for air. He yelled for John (my 23yo brother) to come in and call 911. He did so, and also performed rescue breathing on my mom, successfully resuscitating her. Go John!

The ambulance came and rushed her to the hospital. On the way there is when I received the call from John about what all had happened. This was at 6:something a.m. He said he'd keep me updated. I had been asleep and so was Riley; I told him what happened and we prayed. I wondered if we would need to go out there, if she was going to die, etc. I remember having this feeling like we needed to go and that she wasn't going to make it, but I just tried to go back to sleep, which didn't happen. I sent out a message to our church's prayer chain. Around 8 we were all up and eating breakfast, and I got another call from John. He said they'd made it to the hospital (in Coleman, 20 min south of Novice), that she was doing better and that she'd be fine in a couple days. Whew! I was so relieved.

Riley headed into work and the kids and I lazily went about our morning. I took a shower around 9 and I remember thinking how glad I was that she was OK. As soon as I got out the phone rang again, John. He said that she had another seizure, they kept having to resuscitate her, that they were going to do a spinal tap and CT scan, and that we should probably head that way. John had already talked to Riley so I called him to see how we were going to do this. Barbara (my stepmom) agreed to keep the kids for us so I packed them and ourselves up enough for a couple days and I just walked around putting stuff in bags feeling like I had no idea what to expect, pack, do, think.

Riley came back home and helped me finish up, then we headed out the door. Right then Jimmy called and told me they had found out what was wrong: a blood vessel had burst in her brain and that she might not make it. This was when the first tears came. He said they were careflighting her to the bigger hospital in Abilene. I was happy about that because it is a better hospital and also a shorter distance for us to drive. We dropped the kids off at Barbara and my Dad's house. This was at 10:something a.m. I don't think we stopped the whole way there. I made a few calls, texts, FB posts while Riley drove, to let people know and ask for prayer. Crying off and on.

At some point John called and said they had arrived in Abilene (Hendrick hospital) and were going to do surgery for a subarachnoid brain bleed. When we were almost there he called again and told me that the doctor had just given them the bad news talk, saying that she was basically brain dead because there was no brain activity (after the seizure in Coleman she went into a coma).

We got there around 1 or 2 and met John and Jimmy in the parking lot. Jimmy said that brain activity had increased and that there was a glimmer of hope for survival. Exhale.

We went inside and they showed us the special little waiting room they'd been given and I instantly knew it must be really bad. I never knew these rooms existed, but it didn't take long to figure out why they were so pretty and private... they're for families whose loved one is dying. Sally (my 21yo sister) was in there and we just hugged and cried. Later on my stepsister Jodi (Jimmy's oldest daughter) showed up with her husband.

I asked if we could go in to see Mom. We went down the hall to her room (in ICU) and I'm sure I cried at the sight of her laying there in that bed. Tubes and machines everywhere. Her chest rapidly going up and down like nothing I'd ever seen, but came to find out that was her own breathing and that the ventilator was just down her throat in case she needed it at some point. It was obvious she was fighting. We met her wonderful nurse, Stephanie. This young lady was so informative and kind. Probably the best nurse I've ever dealt with.

She told us about the numbers on one machine, primarily oxygen level, cranial pressure and blood pressure. She told us about all the medicines that were going in. It was all a vicious cycle, one fixing one problem but then the other problem getting worse, etc. There was a blanket covering the top of her head, where a tube had been inserted to drain blood in hopes of relieving the pressure so that they could do surgery on the aneurysm. As it was, if they were to open up the head, her brain would swell outside her skull. Stephanie showed us that a couple of Mom's reflexes were still working: being poked in certain places caused her to move her arms in a defensive motion. But no pupil constriction or other response showing good brain activity.

And there began the long road the rest of the day. We took turns going in there with her, waiting down the hall, eating, talking, making calls, etc. Mom always had at least one of us with her. We still didn't know what to expect as far as timing, but Stephanie was honest enough to tell us that there was only a little chance of survival, and even then, she wouldn't be the same: eating, talking, walking, personality, all that would suffer in terms of normal function. She told us that Mom could hear us so we continued talking to her, telling her how wonderful she was as a mom and wife, and how much we loved her. I read her a list of reasons I was thankful for her, mostly silly things I remembered from my childhood, which I had written on the car ride. We held her hands and kissed her cheeks. Time seemed to disappear.

The swelling kept increasing and the oxygen levels weren't high enough, and the little brain activity that had presented was no longer there. By the end of the night the new nurse on shift told me that Mom was no longer breathing on her own, so the ventilator was keeping her alive. She said the doctor would be coming in the morning to reassess and talk to us. Mom was the nurse's only patient, so that was comforting to know she was in good hands.

Riley and I slept across the street at a dorm-like hotel house that the hospital hooked us up with for hospital visitors. I got about 2 hours, from 1-3 am, then Jimmy called to tell me the cranial pressure was up to 60. For reference, 7-15 is ideal.

I couldn't get back to sleep and finally around 5 I woke up Riley and started talking about all I was thinking and feeling. We went back over to the hospital around 645 and met with the neurologist. Mom looked totally different. Thursday she just looked asleep but at this point it seemed as if she was already gone. It was hard to see. I kept thinking about how we had just seen her on Sunday and she was happy and healthy, and how I just couldn't believe she was laying there before me, dying.

The Dr. told us that what we were dealing with was brain death. They would do a brain flow test to confirm what we already know, and then we could all say goodbye and they would remove the ventilator. They wouldn't be able to do it till 10 though. So we all just cried and held eachother and waited and kept caressing and talking to Mom.

As the time drew near for the test, Stephanie came in and I was the only one in the room with Mom. Tears were streaming down her face, as were mine. She said something to the effect of, "I'm sorry, I always try to hold it together, but..." I think I told her thank you for everything she'd done or something. She went on to say that it wasn't my mom's condition that made her cry, but rather witnessing how our family interacted with Mom and with each other. Wow.

She asked if my mom's organs would be donated and I told her no, then she informed me that in that case we didn't legally have to do the test, only if we wanted to be 100% sure. When Jimmy came back in, she told him the same and the decision was made to forgo the test, since they would have to take her to some other part of the hospital away from us for an hour, then wait another couple hours for results. At that point we were allowed to all gather in there together around her, take our turns saying goodbye and then Jimmy wanted to be alone with her before and during the withdrawal. Riley said a prayer while we surrounded her; I don't remember all the words but it was powerful and peaceful and loving. The whole time we were there, he was a rock, a spiritual leader for everyone, and my admiration for him soared.

Throughout the day and then this one last time I put my ear and hand to her chest to feel the warmth of her skin and the beat of her heart. I'll never forget it. I just cried and told her how she was such a great mom and how much I loved her and would miss her. I told her to save me a spot in her mansion in heaven. We all knew that's where she was going, and we knew she wouldn't want to just be kept alive while in a comatose state. I felt ready to let her go, free of the struggle. We stepped out of the room one by one and just held each other, sobbing.

We proceeded down the hall to wait for Jimmy to come out. I think it was around 11a or 12n when he walked into the room. He said Mom went peacefully. Her last words (backtracking to before she went into a coma the day before) were "I love you." I'm thankful that John was able to bring her back to life even if for just this "one phone call".

To be continued...

1 comment:

  1. Joanna, I know you have already acknowleged this but just to remind and reassure you about your mom, "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord".
    Your mom was a good mother and yes, she is with Jesus.