Sunday, May 13, 2007

In Memory of Mother

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.


dmmgmfm said...

What a beautiful, sad, touching story, KG. Your mother must have been an amazing woman. My heart goes out to you.

Anonymous said...

This post is very lovely Donna - I shed a few tears for you and for your Mom. I know you must miss her on Mother's Day even more because of what you have written here. Time can remove the sharp edges of the pain we feel but not erase it.

Unknown said...

Oh, I'm so sorry for your loss and for the memories that come up on this day.

Ruth said...

Thank you for sharing your moving story. I worked in ICU for 9 years and saw this type of suffering over and over again, but it is good to read this from the family's perspective. Hospital acquired illness is hard to accept, and you seem to have no bitterness about it. My daughter is an RN in London ON on the cardiac floor. Unfortunately, things like this still happen. Sorry for your loss, but your mom sounds like a wonderful lady!

Pam said...

It is bittersweet, the sadness of loss and suffering and the wonderful memories of a remarkable woman.

What touched me most was how she looked at you. Our eyes can say so much, I'm happy you had that to remember.

Mary said...

Donna, this story was worth waiting for. It's wonderful. We did have similar experiences surrounding Mother's Day.

CCU was tramatic for all of us. During my Mom's first few weeks there, I believe she knew she would not live much longer. She said it and I knew it.

I'm so glad you shared these memories with us. It tugs at the heartstrings, I know, but don't you feel so wonderful to pay tribute to your lovely mother?

Cathy said...

Donna -

The pain of loss. The suffering we endure. The final goodbyes. And always - the love.

These past few days I've been filled with a sense of time's passage. Perhaps Spring and all the re-birthing outside, challenges this 60 year-old heart.

So this day will always be, for you - a day of poignant remembrance. The word 'bittersweet' could have no fitter application.

Your mother could have no more loving tribute. Well done, Donna.

Anonymous said...

This this a wonderful tribute of your mother!

Anvilcloud said...

Your account was very moving. Thanks for sharing.

thailandchani said...

Yes, the medical establishment is very dehumanizing. Thanks for telling us about your mother. :)



Climenheise said...

As the brother you kept informed while we finished the semester in Kentucky, I remember this time period well. I think that this is the first time I have read or heard a full account of mother's decline. I knew, of course, the broad outline, but not the specifics of how the staph infection spread.

I'll say more on my blog about how I felt that I was finally present with mother in her dying days -- holding the hand of someone else's mother as the monitor went flat and she passed from this life to the next.

Thank you for remembering and retelling the story. Indeed mother was a special person of remarkable grace and strength.

Beth said...

What a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing.

Such are the stories we all share, about love and loss. It all comes together to build the tapestry that is our life.

God bless you...

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Donna. My heart is full. I love Verna Mae now, but no one will take the place of your mother. I think of her in some way every day. Your mother had and has a Special Place in my heart & memory. And that does not lessen Verna Mae's special place now. With a heart full of love for all of you, Father "C"

Elaine Cougler Author said...

What a touching, wrenching story. And how thoughtful of you to save till the day after Mother's Day.
Your post is the distillation of all of our stories of brushing with death. Thank you.

Denise said...

Donna – thanks for sharing about that day. I found myself just staring at the picture of Mother you put on your Blog. She was beautiful, wasn’t she? I remember that day very well and always will. I remember leaving the house, running from the inevitable call that would come from you. I “knew” you would call and didn’t want you to. I still remember how you told me and the sound of your voice. It is funny the things that one remembers. I wrote on Daryl’s Blog that one of the nicest gifts that I am being given is that I see a lot of Mother in Leah. The older Leah is getting, the more of Mother I see. I love that. I know Mother would be proud of her grandchildren and they miss out not having her around. But, that is the way of life, I guess, but I am grateful for the Mother that I had and am blessed that she was in my life. Thanks again for sharing your heart.

Dorothy said...

Donna, what a touching story of your mom's final days. My heart goes out to you and all those of us who no longer have our mothers and miss them so much on Mother's Day.