Editorial note: I waited until the end of Mother's Day to post this blog, so as not to sound too sad a note for this day of celebration.
My mother died on Mother’s Day, in 1991. So each year, as Mother’s Day comes and goes, it is a bittersweet celebration for me. While this day is for celebration of all the wonderful mothers, it is also a day of remembrance.
April 1, 1991, my mother had surgery for a relatively routine heart valve replacement. I believe the original problem with her heart valve was spotted during a complete physical that was required as a condition of being allowed to enter Ontario, Canada. My parents were moving to Guelph, Ontario, where my father would work as a minister. Since Ontario has a province wide health system that includes any resident, the provincial powers wanted some assurance (I presume) that my parents were not totally decrepit before they entered. Anyway, during that physical the doctor detected a tell-tale sound that indicated one of her heart valves was not closing properly, so blood was leaking between the chambers.
While this condition was not an immediate threat to her health, it would need to be remedied sometime. She continued for 6 years, (and by then my parents had moved back to the US) and then decided to have the valve replaced. She had been tiring more easily, and knew it was time to have the surgery.
The surgery on my mother went well—the defective heart valve was removed and a pig valve inserted in its place. But the evening of her surgery, she was rushed back into the OR as she was clearly losing blood somewhere internally. My dad and I had gone to see her, and she was very very pale. During that second surgery, they restitched some of the sutures, and returned her to the ICU for recovery. I do not know when—whether at the first or the second surgery—but sometime my mother contracted a staph infection. Staph is a ubiquitous bacterium, being basically everywhere. It is in the soil, on our skin, just everywhere. And it is one of those bacteria that hospitals dread.
We did not learn that she had a staph infection until just before she was due to come home. My sister had come in to see her (from Indiana) and was going to be with her for a few days while she recovered. The evening before Mother was due home, my sister and I were visiting her. I had taken along a little stuffed pig—in honor of the pig valve—and for my mother to hold against her stitches when she coughed. She began to cough, and by the look on her face it was plain that she was in deep pain.
So, returning home was cancelled. And my sister went back to Indiana. The hospital staff began to check for bacterial infection, but for whatever reasons, they waited two days before taking specific action; when they did, they operated again. What they found was that my mother’s sternum had basically been destroyed by the bacteria. So, the surgeon removed the necrotic bone, and packed the incision, so it could drain. And intubated my mother.
Thus began 5 agonizing weeks of roller coaster recovery, and relapse. After several weeks, my mother had another surgery, for a trachestomy to allow her to breathe through a tube in her neck, and talk if she chose. During the weeks she was intubated, she could not speak although she tried to talk around the tube. By circumstance, my work situation at the time was such that I was able to visit her almost every day. My dad, of course, also visited her. We tried to coordinate our visits so we could together try to understand my mother’s messages.
My brother was in a doctoral program in seminary in Kentucky, and was coming up on the end of term. Further, his wife Lois had just had her father die on Easter Sunday before our mother went in the hospital. Each time I would talk with my brother, giving him updates, he would ask—should he come and see Mother. I answered, no, I don’t think so yet. (To my everlasting regret, by the time I thought he should come and see her, it was too late. I have apologized to my brother for this failure of judgment on my part.)
The trauma of ICU care is very hard on family members who see their loved ones suffering. Of course, ICU was even more traumatizing on my mother. I distinctly remember one day when my dad and I visited, my dad asked if Mother wanted him to pray with her. She had been a woman of strong faith all her life, but whether from frustration or ICU psychosis or what—she refused. I don’t know how my dad felt, but that little incident underscored how dehumanizing ICU care can be.
I got to be an expert in reading chart notes, and in converting Celsius temperature readings to Fahrenheit—in the US we should have converted to decimal systems years ago, but we haven’t. But medicine has, so all the temp readings were noted in Celsius. I watched her fever, from her body’s efforts to fight off the bacteria, rise and fall. She went through courses on all the available antibiotics as one after another failed to whip the staph.
On Thursday before she died, her temp reached 40 C (104 F) and I knew. I just knew she wasn’t going to make it. I came home, after visiting her, and walked around the block of our neighborhood crying. I told my husband—she’s not going to make it.
The next couple days, she endured her final struggle. The staph infection had spread throughout her system, resulting in small intestine necrosis. The surgeons performed emergency surgery on Mother’s Day, and found only 2 feet of viable small intestine. As the one surgeon said—that is incompatible with adult life. As I drove to the hospital to “discuss treatment options” with the surgeon, having called my dad to alert him also, my mother had a heart attack on the operating table. She was resuscitated, but when she arrested a second time, the surgeon took the initiative and said—no more. By the time we got to the hospital, she was gone.
I write this without rancor, without tears. Not because my mother’s death didn’t touch me, but because time has passed and eased the sharp pain. We all still miss her. She was a remarkable woman. Having written of her death, I will write of her life on her birthday, which was July 7.
One final note—on that Thursday, when my dad and I visited Mother, I was standing on one side of her bed and my dad on the other. She could not turn her head, and as it happened she was looking at me. She looked at me long and lovingly. The depth of that look was other-worldly. She kept looking and looking. My dad remarked that he wished she could have looked at him. Quite frankly, we would have had to change positions, and that may have disturbed her peace. I told my brother and sister about it afterwards. I am convinced that in that look was a distillation of all the love my mother had for us all—especially my dad, and her three children. And perhaps she too knew that her life on earth was ending.
So, Mother’s Day—a day of bittersweet celebration, and loving memories.