I debated yesterday whether to share the events of the past several days, almost feeling that to write down what happened would make it not so.
But it did happen, and in fact, is still happening, so here we go.
As most of you know, my mother, Joy, was put into hospice care after she was diagnosed with sepsis, a nasty blood disease that quickly spread from her infected knee and affected her kidneys, leading doctors to ultimately decide there was nothing more they could do. My three siblings and I were told that our mom would be lucky to live two or three days.
In hospice, my mother and I quickly slipped into a heartbreaking but strangely comforting routine: I would breeze into her room every afternoon with a lemonade and a chocolate milkshake, which I slowly spoon-fed to her while sharing news about the world outside her door, then reading aloud from “A Year in Provence” while she drifted in and out of slumber. “Keep reading — it soothes me,” she would whisper whenever I stopped to rest my voice. We shared many special moments of love, heartache and humor, and as those two or three days turned to five or six, I felt grateful with each passing hour that I’d had a chance to say goodbye.
Then on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, something changed. My mother was suddenly more tired and felt nauseous. She had moments of confusion and no longer desired that creamy chocolate milkshake. My siblings and I could feel her slipping away.
Something, though, felt very different. I kept thinking that something about this new “normal” was off. In spite of her dire prognosis, my mother’s grip was still strong. She could lift her head up from odd angles to reach her water cup, the swelling on her hands and legs had decreased, and as she cycled in and out of sleep, she continually mumbled, “God help me – get me out of here.”
Was this what it was like to die? Or was this something else entirely?
“What if my mother was not dying at all?” I asked myself late at night, unable to sleep. “What if the experts were wrong and a ‘profits before patients’ hospital had kicked her out early and sent her to die to save a buck?”
I put in several requests for a hospice doctor to look at my mother, but nobody showed up. Once a person goes into hospice care, the medical world bows out and you’re lucky if they bother to check in with a stethoscope.
Finally, on Friday, I decided, “enough.”
If a doctor would not come by to order a blood panel for my mom and see where she was on her end-of-life journey, then I would do it myself and pay privately. For whatever reason, I felt strongly that if I did not do the test immediately, she would die over the weekend. Blank-faced hospice nurses who came and went with methadone and morphine doses twice a day, tried to talk me out of it. “You’re setting yourself up for trouble,” they said. “Any kind of medical procedure will jeopardize your mom’s hospice status.”
“Well, good,” I replied curtly. “Bring it on.”
The phlebotomist called the head nurse on duty and after a brief discussion with me, she signed off on the blood work.
My mother’s blood was drawn on Black Friday — just in time for the weekend deadline at the lab in West Jordan. I kissed her goodbye, again wondering if this night could be her last, and went home. At 9:30, the phone rang. It was a person at the lab.
“We’ll fax your mom’s complete test results in the morning,” he said, “but I wanted to let you know that her potassium is critically low. It’s as low as I’ve ever seen. She could have heart failure.”
Potassium? Should I give my mom bananas? I googled the effects of low potassium (sleepiness, nausea, heart palpitations) while my brother, who was with our mom, raced off to buy a supplement to crush up and give to her since none could be offered without a doctor’s order. And doctors, of course, never showed up.
Unable to sleep, I drove to the care center early Saturday morning and waited for the lab results to be faxed through. A nurse explained them to me: In addition to low potassium, my mom’s kidneys weren’t functioning at full throttle and she was anemic. But her white blood cell count — the number that should reveal she had a serious infection — was normal. Where was the sepsis? Could it be gone? Or was the lab report wrong? There was only one way to find out. I opted right then to invoke my power of attorney, pull my mother out of hospice, call an ambulance and get her to the hospital — not to either of the two hospitals that had already failed her, but to a new place entirely.
In the emergency room, my mother’s doctor introduced himself after looking over her blood tests and medical history and said that he was also the medical director of the ER. Not only that, he had worked at one time as the director of a local hospice agency. My sister and I told him our mother’s story and how she had been mistreated and misdiagnosed throughout her two-and-a-half month journey to death’s door. He listened carefully, then told us: “Your mother never should have been sent to hospice care. It is not yet her time. Her sepsis is gone and she can be successfully treated and get on with her life.”
For a minute or two, I was too shocked to cry. But then I had to rush from the room and find a private corner to collapse into. Just a few days before, I had been making calls to crematoriums and looking for songs with “joy” in the title for my kids to play on their instruments at her memorial service. And now, we were hearing that she did not have to die. The enormity of that was almost too much to grasp. How do you go from darkness and certain death to ordering up a cup of coffee with extra cream for your mother from the hospital cafeteria and realizing that you can now buy her a Christmas present?
My mother answered that question for me personally last night by smiling at me with grateful eyes.
“Thank you, my dear daughter,” she whispered, “for saving my life.” ❤️