One year ago today, I saved my mother’s life. Here’s a copy of the story that I wrote about Bright Friday for The Washington Post. : )
By Cathy Free
A year ago, several days before Thanksgiving, my mother was sent into hospice care to die. She was weak and declining by the hour. Three doctors told us that a nasty blood condition called sepsis would soon stop her heart.
I had a hunch they were wrong.
The facility near her home in Salt Lake City was short-staffed because it was Thanksgiving weekend. I couldn’t persuade a doctor to come in and see her, and I felt as if my window to help her was closing fast.
So I spun into action: I called a mobile phlebotomist (the people who stick you to take a blood sample) to come over right away to do an independent blood panel. It was the best call I ever made. We found out that my mother wasn’t dying of sepsis at all — instead, she had critically low potassium.
My mom, as it turned out, needed bananas.
While the day after Thanksgiving is traditionally known as Black Friday to most people, my family now calls it something else: Bright Friday. It was the day we saved my mom.
Since last Thanksgiving, I’ve had 365 days with my mother that I didn’t expect to have. Now 77, she was greatly weakened by her ordeal and requires a long-term care center. But her mind is still active, and her sense of humor is as quirky as ever.
In my three-days-a-week visits, we’ve settled into a comfortable routine: After I bring her a homemade peanut butter smoothie (with extra banana), I settle in next to her bed to read the day’s headlines and fill her in on my two kids’ latest dramas. Then we’ll vent about politics while I spritz her with her favorite “Alien” or “Joy” perfume, give her a manicure or rub lavender lotion into her fragile skin.
On sunny days, I’ll wheel her outside to look at the mountains and check on the family of quail that has set up house in the shrubbery ringing the courtyard.
When she was close to dying last fall, I thought often about the last trip I’d taken with her just seven months before. For more than a decade, my mother had invited me to join her during her annual trip to the International UFO Congress in Arizona every February, and I’d always laughed and declined.
Then last year, when I could see that my mother’s step had drastically slowed (she needed a cane to get around), it hit me that our years together might be numbered.
We weren’t always close. When my parents divorced and I was 11, my brother and I, the oldest two, went to live with my father. My mother kept my other brother and sister, the youngest two.
Old wounds had healed with time, and I thought attending the UFO congress together might be fun.
And it was. For three days, we attended seminars about spaceships, crop circles and alien abductions and shopped for E.T.-themed merchandise, including little green alien necklaces, “I Don’t Believe in Humans” T-shirts and “Fifty Shades of Greys” books.
Mostly, though, we laughed and sipped bright green margaritas and just enjoyed being together as a mother and daughter for the first time in years.
Our getaway took on new meaning in late September last year when my mom’s left knee collapsed while she was preparing for a yard sale. She ended up in a rehab center, then the hospital, and my siblings and I were told that sepsis in her knee had moved to her kidneys. She needed immediate dialysis.
The treatment boosted her kidneys’ function, but her outlook was still poor. Three doctors said it was time to move her into hospice and say our goodbyes.
In her hospice room at a care center near the hospital, my brothers, sister and I took shifts in a cushy recliner next to her bed. As she cycled in and out of sleep, I talked to her about her final requests.
“Nothing fancy,” she told me. “Let’s keep it simple.” She wanted sunflowers at her memorial service and lots of family photos. “Champagne,” she said, “would also be nice. And happy music.”
I rested my head on her chest to feel her warmth.
“Mama, I love you. This is hard, but I will try to be brave,” I told her.
“I love you, too,” she replied, taking my hand. “Think of the happy times. Remember your pink canopy bed? I can still see you sleeping there.”
I went home Thanksgiving night, but, unable to sleep, I went outside in my pajamas and looked at the stars, clutching the snowy owl necklace that I’d worn since my mother’s diagnosis. She always loved snowy owls and collected memorabilia as far back as I can remember. I’d bought this one for my mom at an English sorcery shop in 2015 and carried it with me to Stonehenge, where my family had a tour at sunset. When the sun appeared in the middle of the Great Trilithon, I held up the necklace, knowing that my mother would love that I’d performed a small ritual. At that moment, I felt connected to her and smiled, wondering whether the necklace would now have some sort of power.
As I stood in my chilly backyard last year and searched the stars for the Pegasus and Pisces formations the way my mother had taught me, I was overcome with a feeling that the medical experts were wrong. I decided my mother was not dying. I left several messages for the doctor on call at the care center to come and see her, but he didn’t respond.
After I ordered the blood panel on my own, the phlebotomist called later that night. “I’ll fax the results in the morning,” he said, “but I need to let you know that your mom’s potassium is the lowest I’ve ever seen. It’s critical. She could have heart failure.”
My mom’s nurse said she couldn’t give her potassium without a doctor’s approval. So my brother, who was taking a shift in the recliner, rushed to the grocery store for potassium pills, which he crushed up in water for our mother.
Early the next morning, I was there when the fax results came in showing that if my mother ever had sepsis, it had mysteriously vanished. I immediately called an ambulance to take her to a hospital.
In the emergency room, a doctor said my mom never should have been in hospice care. After nearly a month in the hospital, she was sent to a new care center, which was worst than the first. Finally, on the third try, we got it right.
The staff where she is now is attentive and caring and nobody bats an eye if my mother says, “The lunch today looks like cat food.”
It’s not a perfect life (she’ll never walk again), but my mom is happy on most days and thankful to be alive. I can’t stop smiling when I think back on the recent afternoon when a priest came to her room by mistake to deliver last rites.
“Oh, hell no!” my mother exclaimed. “I’m not going anywhere!”
We laughed until she nearly fell out of her bed. On this Bright Friday, I’ll toast her again with her favorite champagne. My mom says she’s up for two glasses. And maybe a banana.
Cathy Free is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and former newspaper columnist. She contributes regularly to Inspired Life and is writing a book about saving her mother’s life.