“Dad's sick. Aortic aneurysm. Unlikely to survive surgery.”
Within hours I was on an airplane to Indiana, and my brother was on another airplane coming from the East. “He has a 10-percent chance of surviving the surgery,” my brother told me.(1)
In my mind, I was flying to say farewell to a body, to kiss my father goodbye. I did not expect to see my father alive again.
My father survived. But he had suffered from hypoxia, which is a lack of oxygen, during the surgery — the result of being on a heart-lung machine too long, or body cooling, or both or something.
He would go on to spend 30 days in the ICU, paralyzed on one side of his body. Most of those days he was on a respirator with a feeding tube.
A bald, austere internist visited daily. He answered questions about our father’s recovery with “Consider what quality of life he’ll have,” meaning we should let him go. Another brother and I privately referred to the internist as “Dr. Death.” We wanted to see our father well.
Just days before, our dad had been mowing his own two acres. He had signed up for a woodworking class. How do you transition the image of your dad from a vital, funny, independent man to an ICU patient kept alive by machines? How do you let him go?
It turns out, my father had nine more months of life, a life of steadily improving quality that I thought was limitless. He had to relearn how to eat, speak, sit up and walk.
We moved him to a rehab facility in Arizona, where he eventually came off the feeding tube, ate real food, talked, walked a few feet with a walker, and even read a storybook to my 3-year-old daughter.
And then he got pneumonia. He woke one morning unable to breathe. An early morning phone call. An ambulance ride to the hospital.
Within two weeks, my father was dead.
The journey from initial illness to death with someone you love is an odyssey of pain, stress and loss for all involved. The following are some tips for coping.
Grief can be deadly, and grief can begin as early as your loved one’s diagnosis. Severe emotional or physical stress called stress cardiomyopathy can damage your heart muscle.
1) Katz, D.J. et al. Operative mortality rates for intact and ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysms in Michigan: an eleven-year statewide experience. Retrieved November 10, 2016.
2) Hypoxia. FreeDictionary.com. Retrieved November 10, 2016.
3) Frequently Asked Questions about Broken Heart Syndrome. HopkinsMedicine.org. Retrieved November 10, 2016.
4) When a Loved One is Terminally Ill. HelpGuide.org. Retrieved November 7, 2016.
5) Jenkinson, Stephen. Die Wise. North Atlantic Books. 2015. p. 367.