Saturday, September 16, 2006


This time last Saturday night, I was sitting on the floor of my mother's room in the surgical intensive care unit at Baptist Hospital working crossword puzzles. I hadn't planned on making a trip down that weekend, but after phone calls on Thursday and Friday that Mom had been having some trouble with shortness of breath, I was seriously thinking about heading down on Saturday evening after my husband got home from work.

The phone rang about 3:15 on Saturday afternoon and it was Kyle. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was discouraged. "Things don't look good," he said. "The doctor says she could go today."

"What are you saying?" I asked, scarcely able to believe what I was hearing. Hadn't she been improving as recently as Wednesday? Weren't the doctors saying that each morning's chest x-ray was looking better than the one before? What was going on?

I could tell he didn't want to be so direct with me, but I needed to hear it straight.

"Sheryl," he said as gently as he could, "Mom's not going to make it."

I threw some clothes in a suitcase as fast as I could and grabbed my bag full of makeup and hair essentials which was still packed from my previous trip home. Standing in my closet, the strangest feeling came over me. How odd it was to be picking out a dress for my mother's funeral while she was still living. It had to be done, however, and I grabbed hose and pumps to match.

During the three-hour drive, I kept repeating the same prayer again and again in my mind. "Lord, please let her hang on until I get there. And please don't ask us to make the decision to disconnect her from life support." It was so important to me that I get to kiss her one more time and tell her how much I love her. And equally important that we not be forced to determine when she would take her last breath. I felt like that decision belonged to God alone.

When I got there, I was relieved to find that God had answered my first prayer. Her vital signs were still relatively stable, so after I spent a few minutes talking to her with absolutely no response at all, my brother, his wife, and I felt okay about leaving the hospital for an hour or so to grab dinner.

On our way to the restaurant (which incidentally was the same Mexican restaurant where my brother and I ate the night after Mom received her cancer diagosis), Kyle made an interesting observation. "You know, we've all been praying for a miracle here and wondering why God hasn't done something," he began. "What if this is it?"

My whole perspective shifted at that moment. We knew Mom had bone cancer, but I hadn't realized just how extensive it was until earlier that evening. Should she survive the surgery, the outlook for the future was extremely bleak. By rescuing her from any more suffering, God was giving all of us -- especially Mom -- a wonderful gift. I just hadn't quite seen it that way before.

We stayed with her throughout the night, never letting our eyes drift for long from the screen that displayed her oxygen saturation, heart rate, and blood pressure. Occasionally, it would appear that her heart rate was slowing, but then it would pick back up again. She was hanging on with everything she had.

Somewhere in the night (around 2, I think) her nurse attempted to turn her, and afterward, we noticed her breathing became very rapid. A stat chest x-ray was ordered, and after my brother looked at it, he came back into the room and whispered to me that it was the worst chest he'd ever seen in his life. Her right lung was almost completely collapsed, and when they asked us if we wanted a chest tube (she already had one on the left), we all agreed that it was pointless.

Once the pneumothorax was discovered, I think we all expected she would go quickly at that point, but she continued to hang on through the rest of the night. At some point, I started feeling myself become delirious with fatigue and retired to the waiting room to collapse on a couch. My dad joined me in the waiting room after giving instructions to Kyle and Traci to awaken us immediately if the situation changed.

Another chest x-ray was performed several hours after the first, and according to Kyle, it was even worse than the one before.

Somewhere around 8:30 a.m., we went over the situation with the on-call doctor, who was kind enough to let us step around behind the nurses' station and read as many of her reports as we wished and answered all our questions as kindly and compassionately as he could.

"So, you're telling us that without some sort of miracle, there is absolutely no hope?" I asked.

He nodded his head slowly. I could tell it was hurting him to deliver this news.

I looked across the narrow hallway into my mother's room. "How much longer do you think this might go on?" I asked.

"Oh, possibly another 24 to 48 hours," Dr. Church said and then paused. "Or until you as a family decide that it is time to pull the life support."

"Oh, God," I groaned inwardly. "It wasn't supposed to come to this."

The four of us looked at each other, and we just knew. It was time. Mom's 65th birthday was the following day, and if I knew anything, it was that I didn't want 9/11 to be my mother's birthday, the anniversary of one of the worst tragedies our country has ever seen, AND the anniversary of my mother's death.

We were given several more private minutes to spend with her, and when we felt the time was right, Kyle went to the nurses' station and gave Dr. Church the go-ahead.

We stepped outside the room briefly while the nurse turned off all the machinery and pulled the tubes out. When she was finished, we were allowed to go back in to be with Mom as she spent her final minutes on this earth. A hospital chaplain was summoned by the nurse, and he appeared with his Bible, ready to offer spiritual counsel if we desired.

I had thought it would be very nice to sing hymns, but when the time actually came, we stood in complete silence. The words to "It Is Well" were being sung in my mind, but it just didn't seem fitting (or possible) for any of us to make a single sound during those last moments together.

She didn't last long. I watched her chest move rapidly at first and then gradually slow to only several breaths per minute. I was holding her right hand and Kyle her left, neither of us able to feel a radial pulse. Several times I thought she had stopped breathing, but then many seconds later another gasp would come.

Finally at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, September 10, 2006, my mother exited this life and entered into eternal life. And in doing so, she changed our lives forever.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Time Warp

It's been five days since Mom's surgery, and I have spent more time in the ICU waiting room than anywhere else during that time. It's amazing how time seems to stop once you step through the doors that lead to the waiting area shared by the three intensive care units at the hospital. Although life keeps going on the outside, I feel I'm in a time warp when those doors shut behind me.

The world of critical care is one in which people who in the ordinary course of life would probably never cross paths are suddenly thrust together day after day, suspended in time, waiting for their loved ones to turn the corner, so to speak.

Several minutes before visiting hours begin, family members begin lining up down a long hallway. A receptionist who I am convinced is a retired flight attendant rattles off instructions in the exact manner you would be told where to stow your bags over your head and where you can locate your oxygen mask in the event of a flight emergency. And when she is finished with her please-use-a-nickle-sized-amount-of-hand-sanitizer-to-protect-your-patient spiel, the red door sign is turned over to the green side marked "All Units Open" and the cattle herd begins.

For anyone who has never maintained an ICU vigil, it's impossible to describe the palpable expectation, particularly early in the morning, as family members anxious for some sign of improvement hasten to see their loved ones.

I waited this morning in line behind three older women, all visiting their husbands. One of them, Marie, told me earlier in the week that her husband had been in ICU for 63 days ... this time. Between his four visits for heart-related problems, he has spent more time in the hospital this year than out. "We're thinking about getting well," she said cheerfully. "I just hope we're thinking about getting well today!" As the door to the units opened and the three ladies prepared to part company, one of them called to another, "Maybe today will be the day!"

Maybe today ...