On July 25th 2005 my siblings and I were called to my father’s hospital bed. He had had complications from a surgical procedure and summoned us all there. So per his request, Dad’s live in girlfriend Deb call us. He was dying. We were scattered over three states: New York, Michigan and Ohio. We drove and flew to him as quickly as possible. Within hours of the call we were all at his bedside. He was conscious and alert but in obvious distress. I’ll skip the medical details but his condition was serious. My sister brought her kids too; to see their grandfather. I could tell that he was happy to see his grandchildren. While young and scared they were very mature and comforting to my father.
I’m the only one in the family with medical training and I acted to communicate with the hospital and the family. I also communicated with some of my colleagues from work about the right care. The care at that time was supportive and appropriate for the situation, but he was failing.
Dad could communicate with a little effort and he tried to comfort us. We spent quite a bit of time with him in the intensive care unit. In consultation with Deb, my family I made our wishes known clearly to the medical personnel to ensure care and endorsed resuscitative efforts as he was not DNR (do not resuscitate). We wanted dad to pull through this.
Visiting hours were over so that dad could get some sleep and we were advised to go to dinner and return later. I told dad our plans and the family all said goodbye. I was the last one to leave my father’s side. I was holding his hand, kissed him, said I love you and said goodbye. He held my hand tightly for a few moments, said goodbye and as I looked into his eyes I knew. This was the last goodbye.
Somewhat in a fog I went to the hall with the family and tried as delicately as I could to say that I thought dad was saying goodbye to us as a last goodbye. He wanted to see us and he was ready to go. I’m not sure if they got the impression I had, but the plan was to go home and let dad get some rest, which we did.
About an hour later the phone rang at the house and the doctor asked for me. According to the doctor, Dad had gone into cardiac arrest almost immediately after we left. They did what I told them to do to resuscitate him and those attempts were not successful. The doctor wanted to know if we were going to come back to the hospital and say goodbye again and I said yes. I now needed to break it to the family.
Breaking the bad news sucks. But that is what I did. I had seen many families be told of the loss of a loved one and it sucks to watch and it hurts horrendously to be part of it. It may have been those years on the ambulance where I’ve seen patients give up and effectively know when it is over, like what dad did. I think my brother was not too surprised because he could read my face fairly well when I got off the phone – we are 15 months apart in age so you kind of get to reading one another. My sister is 3 years younger and both she and Deb were surprised that dad had gone so quickly. I did not give them the detail that he was probably in cardiac arrest when we were still in the parking lot.
We took some time to grieve and put ourselves together. My sister and brother-in-law told their kids. We piled back in the car and went to the hospital to say goodbye to dad.
I was the first one to dad’s ICU room and pretty shocked that he was not cleaned up from the resuscitation efforts. He still had an IV and breathing tube etc in. I stopped the family from entering and told the nurses I did not want the family to see him that way. I was kind of upset because, in my years of doing medical and EMS work, I had cleaned up several people after dying so that the family could visit in a somewhat dignified way. Dad looked like they had just abandoned what they were doing and walked away. Miffed I made it clear to the nurse to clean him up or myself and my lawyer brother were doing it now.
Sorry, yeah I pulled rank, but there is no excuse for that. It is insensitive in the extreme to abandon a corps in such a state knowing family with kids were coming. Yes, I know I just referred to my father’s body as a “corps” but that is how they were treating him.
The rest of the family, Deb included, said goodbye in groups or alone. My sister let her kids decide what they wanted to do and they all said goodbye.
We signed the papers etc for tissue donation and various documents that the hospital shoved in front of us. That is where my brother the Michigan law grad comes in handy.
In a haze and stoic silence we piled back in the car to head home. The house seemed larger and lonelier now. I took on the task of calling our mother to tell her. Mom and Dad had divorced several years ago. On the phone mom was supportive and told me that us kids were great at supporting each other, which is correct. Her voice started to crackle and she asked me if I knew what day it was and I said yes, it would have been my parent’s 45th anniversary.
When I was alone in bed thinking about the tragic events of the day. I was literally walking to work when I got the phone call. The last news I had was talking to dad saying his procedure went well and was going home that day. His discharge day became his last day on earth. Alone and to myself if finally cried. I cried at the loss of my father and that there was nothing I could do. I spent every day of my life for 25 years, working to save lives, and my father dies of a simple complication from a routine procedure. Every ounce of logic in my body knows that it should not happen ever but it happens all too often. The medical system boasts some of the best minds in the world but the simple things can take or save lives. My research will save thousands of lives, but it did no good for my father. All that damn knowledge I have about serious complications killing people does no good if the people working on patients don’t do the right thing. Sometimes I am so proud of the system I work in and sometimes it makes me sick. July 25th 2005, was an example of the latter.