To or Not To

by Liesl McCord
(Nashville, TN)

When I was just 12 my mother was diagnosed with acute myeloctytic leukemia after a routine gynecological exam revealed that her spleen was enlarged to three times its normal size.

Over the next 12 years or so, Mom had chemotherapy treatments, radiation, experimental drugs and even a bone marrow transplant just 4 years after the diagnosis. However, that truly wasn’t the hard part. Having a severely compromised immune system from the treatments, she was very susceptible to even the smallest and the most common illnesses. In late October 1997, my brother and I were away at college when we got a call from Dad to tell us Mom had been hospitalized with severe pneumonia.

This wasn’t an uncommon call because Mom was periodically hospitalized for short stays due to one reason or another so no one was panicking at that point. However, it soon became very clear that this stay was turning into a longer, more complicated problem. Doctors eventually convinced my parents that a medically induced coma and life support systems would allow Mom’s body to fight the infection better without exerting more energy for other day-to-day tasks. Mom had always made it very, very clear to everyone in the family that she did not want to remain on life support if she wouldn’t be living a good quality of life. After more than six weeks in this coma-induced state, doctors finally called the family together to deliver the bad news - fluid on both lungs and all other efforts are failing. Essentially, we were being told that they were willing to try to another chest tube, but were not confident of its success.

Between Dad, the four of us kids, my grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins, we finally told the doctor to try the chest tube mostly to appease my grandmother’s wishes. Two days later, we had another family meeting and facing reality, Dad and the four kids vetoed my grandmother’s desperate pleas to keep the life support in place and, in accordance with my mother’s wishes and living will directives, had the doctors remove the life support machines.

Mom passed away early that Sunday morning surrounded by family and friends overflowing the waiting rooms. Having to be part of determining when and how my own mother died was the most heart-wrenching decision I have ever been part of making and to date, the biggest loss any of us have experienced.

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