The recent time I spent in the hospital brought back a lot of old memories and I couldn’t help thinking about the similarities and differences between my husband’s and my father’s illnesses and passings.
Back in late 1996, my father went to the emergency room because he was having difficulty breathing. I won’t dredge up too many of the details because it was a long, heart-wrenching week for our family, but essentially he was admitted and that’s it. His doctor was less than stellar, and his care was mediocre at best. Despite desperate pleas for answers, and my father’s own authorization for the medical staff to tell “anyone anything”, he laid in that bed from an “unknown” cause. He underwent numerous tests and still no one could (or would) tell us what was happening. They would tell us what it wasn’t (his heart) but nobody seemed to know what it was.
Nobody, that is, until a resident doctor ignored his orders, looked through Daddy’s chart and sat our family down that New Year’s Eve (if I remember correctly) and told us that if it were his family member, he would want to know. He went on to say that my father had a tumor in his abdominal cavity that was starting to affect his vital organs, and the doctor’s best guess was that Daddy had only a few months to live. We spent the next several days talking and crying and railing at how unfair it all was. Daddy spent that time telling us all what we meant to him; he told my husband and my brother’s wife that as far as he was concerned, they were his children, too.
Then, a few nights later, after I had gone home to rest, my older brother called to tell me I should get back to the hospital as quickly as I could. My husband and I rushed back to find my father really struggling for breath. There came a point where he simply was unable to take another breath, and I stood there by his bed, holding his hand, looking into his blue eyes and begging him to “Breathe, Daddy… You have to breathe!” It took all the strength he had to get out the words, “I can’t…” before his machines started beeping and the staff called “Code Blue” hustling us all from the room. He was rushed to ICU and put on life support but by morning, we knew he was gone. After a family discussion of Daddy’s wishes, we decided to remove his ventilator, and after taking a breath-and-a-half, he slipped away.
Through the years, my husband and I have discussed that time in the hospital, and one of the things that bothered him most was that my father complained of feeling bloated, yet the medical staff didn’t seem to do anything to relieve his discomfort. He would always ask “why didn’t they just do something – anything – to make him more comfortable?” Of course, I never had an answer for that.
Fast forward more than 19 years to my husband’s own hospitalization, and the circumstances were similar, yet quite different. The medical staff while my husband was unconscious in ICU patiently answered every question I had (and believe me, I had a lot!) I learned more about the machines to which he was connected, the medications he was taking, the procedures they were performing… you name it, I had a question (and an answer) for everything. The staff never made me feel foolish for asking, and if they didn’t have an answer, they would tell me so but then go find one for me. I was never left wondering what was going on. At one point, I noticed my husband seemed to be retaining fluid and his stomach was becoming distended, which brought flashbacks to my father. So I strongly insisted on an MRI to find out if something was going on that needed to be addressed. [Note: this was before he came out of his coma, and there was still question of my husband’s cognitive capacity at that time. While the doctor initially seemed hesitant to perform any unnecessary tests, he did so at my urging.] It turned out that there was nothing but fluid retention and air filling his intestines from the ventilator (a common event, it seems), but I felt better for asking.
During his brief recovery, my husband gave us all a few treasured gifts – goofy smiles, thumbs up, waves, and there was even a period where he kept winking at me (despite not knowing who I was at that point, he was actually trying to flirt with me…). Looking back, that was the best form of closure he could have given us, especially with his limited communication skills.
Sadly, A sank into a coma again, during which he developed a fever that kept rising despite the medical staff’s best efforts – even under an ice blanket set at 97 degrees, his temperature climbed to 107.7 until his body just gave out. Again, I was in the room when he coded, and they quickly shuffled me into the hallway to do what they could. The difference was, he couldn’t speak any final words to me there. Instead, his final spoken words, like those of my father, were to me; his were spoken at the restaurant before he had his heart attack when he said “the bathrooms were locked”. Profound, right?
In each case, a strange set of circumstances led me/us to that place in time. With Anestis, that day we were visiting our daughter in Palm Beach for a belated birthday celebration, the bathroom doors at the restaurant were locked (or he would have been alone in there for an unknown period of time), and we were in the zone for the number one cardiac facility in the state (details of which I’ve shared before). Before my father passed, it was a more drawn out timeline, but we had only moved back “home” about a month prior. Before that, we had been living in Hawaii, but left the islands and flew straight to Florida to try to find jobs there (Florida had been our second choice initially). One day when I tried to call my father at work (because we didn’t have cell phones and he had a toll free number for me to call), I was told he wasn’t in that day because he was attending his mother’s funeral. I got off the phone in a panic and couldn’t breathe, believing my grandmother had passed away and I didn’t know because I was unreachable. My husband held me close, rubbed my back, and just spoke comforting words (honestly, it could have been gibberish, but it sounded good to me) until I calmed down. I then made a few more phone calls and learned that my grandmother was fine, and they were talking about a different D at my father’s job. But that phone call made our decision to rent a car and drive back to the place we had left so many months before, believing that we had been gone for good. So I got to spend one last Christmas with my father, not knowing it would be my last.
In both cases, I was able to get at least some closure, communicating with both my father and my husband while they were in the hospital, although my husband was very limited in his communication. I was there for the passing of both of the most important men in my life, although the circumstances were quite different – one filled with quiet mourning, the other with orderly chaos. I was the last person each of them spoke to, one of those facts of which I’m unsure if it’s a positive or not. And in the very end, both passed very quickly, leaving little doubt that things could have turned out differently.
Yet, in one instance, we got very few answers, while in the other we got everything answered. In my father’s case, the illness leading up to his passing was relatively quick by most standards, but it was still a progressive thing; in my husband’s case, it was fast and without warning. During my father’s hospitalization, there were always many people nearby due to his large family; during my husband’s hospital stay, there were comparatively fewer visitors, and following my in-laws’ return to their home, I was often the sole person in his room for long periods of time (except for his nurses).
Neither of these situations was ideal (the understatement of the century…), yet it was almost as if I learned something from the first one. If and when my husband’s time came, I wanted to have absolutely no doubt that the doctors did everything they could have. Thankfully, I don’t. So while it was déja vu, and there are similarities, there are also quite a few differences. And even though both transitions were difficult, I do believe I am blessed to have been there for the passings of the two most influential men in my life. For that, I am thankful.
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