Do Not Resuscitate

My mother is 83. A couple of years ago, she weighed over a hundred pounds (she’s about five feet tall and very petite). Now she weighs 68 pounds. She has a variety of things wrong with her health-wise. She also has a worthless DNR (Do Not Recuscitate).

In 2001, my step-dad, to whom my mom had been happily married for about 30 years, had to go into the hospital for what should have been a simple operation. There was a growth behind his ear, and they wanted to get rid of it. Head surgery is tricky, but his prognosis was excellent. Plus, good luck had followed him through his life like a faithful puppy dog.

Somehow he knew in the back of his mind something wasn’t going to be as rosy as we all hoped. Before he went to the hospital, he showed my mom all these caches of money he had hidden around the house. Very odd.

He came out of the surgery fine. But in recovery, he developed an embolism that killed him. His death was sudden and unexpected. It hit us all hard– me, my mother and my two step-brothers (his sons by a prior marriage). His death was no one’s fault. My mother was encouraged by others to sue the doctors, but everyone was told beforehand that this could happen. We just hoped it wouldn’t. Instead, it did.

I’ve had many relatives die, and one thing you hope won’t happen, but which does a lot, is that when one spouse dies, the other often follows suit shortly thereafter. Their loss is too great and they simply don’t want to carry on any further. They give up on life, and at that point, it doesn’t last long.

So when my dad died, I made it a point to call Mom each week on Sunday, just to make sure she was okay. She survived and seemed to be doing okay. Her health was relatively good for her age. But as time wore on, she became more and more dissatisfied with her life and the state of the world around her. She wasn’t good with technology, so the Internet and World Wide Web left her behind. She barely could figure out how to operate her TV and cable remotes, and often had to call the cable company for help.

For almost two decades now, I’ve talked to her every Sunday, and almost every time I’ve called her, she’s said she doesn’t want to be here anymore. Over the years, her health has gradually deteriorated. Mom didn’t want to have the expense of a long illness or a lingering death. Quality of life was more important. If she didn’t have that, she didn’t want to stay. Similarly, she didn’t want people fussing over her when she was dead. She arranged to have her body donated for science, and had a Do Not Rescucitate order drawn up.

A DNR is a legal instrument which basically says that if any “heroic” measures are necessary to keep someone alive, they won’t be undertaken. In other words, if I can’t make my own health care decisions (because I’m in a coma or something), everyone else is forbidden from making health care decisions of major significance which keep me alive. No operations, no significant major changes to treatment, etc. In other words, just let me die.

In addition, Mom gave her brother medical power of attorney.

I love my uncle. He’s about the funniest guy I’ve ever met, and has a continual impish quality about him which makes him charming. My aunt apparently agrees, because they’ve been married dang near forever. But he’s not the kind of guy to question doctors and other medical people. When they say something, it’s the law. But he’s several years older than my mom, and he’s starting to forget things. And like all of us, he loves Mom and doesn’t want to see her go.

In contrast to my uncle, my step-brother and I have no problem questioning doctors and medical types about their advice and decisions. If it doesn’t make sense to us, we question it. Unfortunately, this does not make us popular in hospitals and doctors’ offices. And we are both keenly aware of Mom’s DNR and her sentiment that she doesn’t want to be here anymore.

Again, as the years have gone by, her health has deteriorated. She frequently falls, can’t get up and subsequently loses consciousness. If it weren’t for my uncle or his wife calling and driving over when she falls and can’t answer the phone, she would already have died alone in her house.

Unfortunately, in a variety of ways, my uncle has amply demonstrated that when it comes to Mom and medical care, he will simply follow the advice of whomever is the closest doctor. No questions. He hasn’t a clue what’s going on, but somehow he’s satisfied with that.

Now Mom’s down to 68 pounds, she has kidney disease and a catheter. She’s refused dialysis, but has been operated on at least once when doctors said she needed a kidney stent. The operation was authorized by my uncle.

Mom has cataracts, so she doesn’t see that well. She can’t hear very well at all, and it has made our phone conversations very difficult. She can’t drive any more, and can only get around in her own house using a walker. Feeding herself is a massive chore.

As can be seen, she’s hanging on by the barest thread. The medicos around her are more than willing to bankrupt her extending her life. Her brother will go along because those doctors know more than he does. Or so he thinks.

No one knows how long she has to live. Not long, in her condition, I imagine. But my step-brother and I have more or less given up trying to protect her from herculean steps taken to extend her life (but not her quality of life). Her brother will do whatever it takes to keep her around. And there’s no arguing with him. Like my mother, he’s stubborn, despite his deteriorating faculties.

My point here is that my mother will be kept alive despite her wishes until there’s no money left and she’s in a coma.

You may ask what my mom thinks of all this. She loves her brother, and will make allowances for pretty much any decisions he makes. She’s too tired to fight, and more or less apathetic about her fate. It’s in other people’s hands, and she just doesn’t care any more. She wakes up every morning and is surprised to be alive. Sometimes she’s in the hospital hooked up to numerous machines. Sometimes she’s in rehab after a hospital stay. And sometimes she’s at home, unable to walk or feed herself without assistance, waiting for the next health care person to walk through her door.

Needless to say, Mom’s quality of life is out the bottom. But she’s still alive.

The moral of this story is that if you have a DNR, don’t make the decision-maker (your medical power of attorney or whoever) someone who will not honor your wishes. Things will get messy and your loved ones will end up having to clean up the mess, possibly after you’ve passed.

Update: My mother died in a nursing home on 29 September 2019. When they came to check on her at 5 am, she had passed on. Her brother had long since ceased to be able to carry out his duties as executor of her will, as he now has persistent physical and mental disabilities. Fortunately, my step-brother lives in the same state as my mother, and has some freedom to tend to her care and affairs. I’m four states away, and have had my own medical difficulties of late. In any case, my step-brother and I have been on the same page as far as Mom’s DNR goes. No heroic measures. And fortunately none were necessary.