Betty Lou Stratton, Cadet Nurse
In the spring of 2000, she fell down on several occasions and her teeth fell out for no apparent reason. I mean, there had to be a reason, but it wasn't obvious. She was admitted into the hospital where, for the first time in her life, she did not keep her head-nurse-eagle-eye on the doctors, nurses, and staff. She was distracted. Her mind was on, she would say, more important matters. This time, she was aware that her hospitalization was different.
After a procedure on the evening of Easter Sunday, she failed. An intensivist was called to provide emergency interventions. At a critical juncture in her event, he was made aware of her Advance Directive. He told Betty Lou that if she wanted to live, he would have to intervene with life saving heroics. She was lucid enough at the time to tell him that she would agree, if only for a brief while, until it could be determined if her life could be sustained without long term support.
It was here her problem began. After their conversation, she fell into a deep, unreachable coma. She was no longer able to define what she meant by a "brief while." She continued to need tests, treatments, surgeries, and life support. Even with all of these being performed, she failed to thrive. After a few weeks, social services, the finance department and medical staff called the proxy to make a decision regarding Betty Lou's life: continue or desist. The proxy, taking all points under advisement along with her written and verbal commands, made the decision to discontinue life support and allow her to function, or not, of her own accord. It was believed that she would only live for a few hours after support was withdrawn.
The proxy, sad and dejected, left the hospital to make arrangements for her cremation and memorial...according to her very specific and detailed orders. The proxy's wife, at home waiting his return, answered the phone when it rang. It was a nurse from the hospital. She asked for the proxy and upon hearing he wasn't available, hurriedly stated that she had been in the last step of Betty Lou's disconnect. At that point, Betty rallied from her long coma. Startled, the nurse informed Betty Lou that her life support was being discontinued according to her wishes. She then asked her if this was what she wanted. Betty blinked indicating "no". NO, she shook her head. NO! The nurse told the proxy's wife she needed a verbal decision to cease the disconnect process. She asked what she should do. The proxy's wife, being in a situation of having to make a life or death decision, and hoping her husband would agree, yelled for the nurse to stop. She told her to re-initialize Betty Lou's support. Happily, the nurse, quickly and efficiently, set about doing as she was instructed.
WHOOPS! And I mean a BIG OL' W-H-O-O-P-S! Another person's life was almost taken, albeit by her own pen, it was still nearly forfeit. When the proxy arrived home 20 minutes later, his wife told him that the hospital had called. Resignedly, he dropped his head and stated that he knew. He told his wife that he had finally given the instructions to discontinue life support for Betty Lou according to her very specific instructions regarding no heroics in the last stages of her life. He told his wife that he had been out making her final arrangements. He stated that he knew that by the time he got home to pick her up to go up to the hospital for the last time, the hospital would call with notice of Betty Lou's death. His wife, with rushed panic, explained that what he didn't understand was that Betty had risen at the last possible minute to indicated this was not her wish. And that she, the proxy's wife, upon being asked to make the final decision on the end of life, had ordered the nurse to stop the process.
A whiter shade of pale surfaced as the blood drained from his face. Catching his breath, he told his wife he felt the flames of Hell licking on the heels of his near execution of her self-imposed death sentence. What a tricky business...this interpretation of the intricacies of another's life. Especially when the ego's desire for life was stronger than the intellect's ability to account. We rarely know what we truly want until that last instant is at hand.
After that incident, Betty Lou roused, kind of, for a day or two. She couldn't speak but she would nod. It was a mad yes-nod given in response to ALL questions. Do you want to live? Yes. Do you want water? Yes. Would you like a back rub? Yes. Would you like dirt in your IV? Yes. Is dog poop a great dessert? Yes. It was as if her mind was gone but a powerfully, small piece of her own sheer will that could not, nay, would not, let her pass on, was pulling the marionette's string. Finally, even the nodding stopped as she dropped back into her coma, never to return. The disconnect process was finally executed by her doctor on May 21, 2000.
Betty Lou was my mother-in-law. My husband was her proxy. We will never forget the biggest "whoops" of our life. EVER!