Kay’s Story

It’s been almost a year since my friend Kay and I had our car accident. We were only two years out of college and had just finished work. Both of our families lived far away so we were “it” for each other. We carpooled often, and that day was her turn to drive. It could have just as easily been me behind the wheel. The light turned green, and we started to cross the intersection. A driver was texting on his phone, ran the red light, and smashed into our car. I have no memory of what happened after that.

People tell me that Kay and I were pinned in the car, and that it took a while for the paramedics to get us to the ER. Kay was in critical condition with a severe head injury, her heart stopped several times, and they had to perform CPR on her.  We both hadgone into a coma.

Although I eventually woke up, Kay suffered severe brain damage. For days, doctors did everything they could to keep her alive – breathing machines, stomach tubes, and all the other “extraordinary measures.”  When her family finally arrived and found her advance medical directives days later, they [...] continue the story

What does “palliative care” feel like?

It’s hard to imagine what a palliative care environment is like unless your family has experienced a loved one dying in one.

Almost eleven years ago, my 89 year old mother was dying of lung cancer. Fortunately, the almost five-year course of the disease had left her mostly symptom- and pain-free. But, about a month before she died, my mom suffered a nasty fall. After a day or so of hospital tests her (very wise) physician told us, “the disease has spread to her brain; there’s nothing more we can do. I suggest we transfer her to hospice.”

Startling, but not unexpected, news.

We talked with my mother about the transfer. She was calm and knew it was for the best.

I don’t remember what I was expecting when we accompanied my mother to the hospice facility, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of vibrant atmosphere we found there.

After all, death is supposed to be solemn and foreboding.

But not here. Here, families were sitting in a spacious greatroom, watching TV, playing games and laughing. There were kids around. The staff was upbeat and engaging.

We were shown to my mother’s room and encouraged to visit any time, day or night. A staff nurse reassured us [...] continue the story

How Patrick Swayze died: Why we should care

By Barron H. Lerner, MD

When I finished my book on famous patients, the most common question I received was “Are the stories of sick celebrities really relevant to other patients?” My answer was that yes, with some caveats, these experiences are well-worth knowing.

The same can be said for the story of Patrick Swayze’s terminal pancreatic cancer, which has now been told by his widow, actress Lisa Niemi Swayze, in a new book, “Worth Fighting For: Love, Loss and Moving Forward.” Patrick Swayze, a dancer and actor best known for his roles in the films “Dirty Dancing” and “Ghost,” was diagnosed in January 2008 and died of the disease in September 2009 at the age of 57. He was originally told he would live only a few months.

First, the caveats. Like most celebrities, Swayze had the means, as his wife says, to “think outside the box.” He enrolled in a clinical trial at Stanford University, traveling regularly to Palo Alto from Los Angeles for experimental chemotherapy. Swayze also was a VIP patient, getting first-class attention from top doctors and hospital staffs. Most patients experience greater hurdles.

Nor should pancreatic cancer patients who read “Worth Fighting For” assume that they, like Swayze, can [...] continue the story

I Let Her Die: A Story of Suicide by Starvation

What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to live a dignified life? Should the two not go together? When a person no longer has any real awareness of her existence, no recognition of previously loved friends and family, no control over body functions, no ability to feed herself, is this a dignified life? Is this a human existence? How much worse the situation must be to a person who exhibits all of the above losses, but who still retains enough lucidity to understand the situation. Living must be a torment, a “hell” on earth, except to those who still retain a belief in a “heaven” after death. To someone like that, the only control left, is over food. Whether to eat and live, or refuse to live, and die. Suicide by starvation. I was faced with just that situation.

I let her die. When my aunt was admitted to a nursing home, she weighed about ninety pounds, and was hardly eating. The team of doctors, nurses, social workers, psychiatrists, suggested a feeding tube. They were shocked by my immediate refusal, as they felt it was the only way to keep her alive. I was the [...] continue the story

My Rise From Near-Self Destruction

To be or not, as Shakespeare said, or to live or not to live. That was the question which plagued me. I was now seventy-seven years old. Did I want to live into my very senior years, given that I had developed neuropathy which was hampering my ability to walk and causing me great pain? Then, a further question appeared; would it take more courage to commit suicide, and avoid the painful future which would include a lessening of my faculties, both physical and intellectual, and would include requiring someone to look after me, or to choose to live, and accept the years and changes to come, as a challenge?

I had always been healthy, strong, and independent. Thus the concept of not walking, and needing someone to look after my daily needs was an anathema to me. The neuropathy had probably been developing over many years, as I can now recall getting tired faster, and not being able to walk as far. Also there appeared a numbness and tingling sensation in my legs, along with pain up my legs and into my back. As well, the tingling had begun in my fingertips. So now fear really set in. How long [...] continue the story