Withdrawing treatment isn’t really like pulling the plug on the toaster…
I should back up a bit and include a couple of pieces of relevant data.
My Grandparents both have/had advanced directives… i.e. “living wills”… they specify that no extreme measures or painful lifesaving procedures should be done to them — and they named one another as the primary decision maker. Of course, they never thought that they’d be in the hospital together — or that Grandma would have short-term memory loss…
As a result, my Mom and her siblings were responsible for making the end of life decisions concerning my grandparents. Since Mom’s a nurse, her siblings said they’d trust her judgment — which IMHO, was kind of an easy way out.
They also resisted going into Grandpa’s room. It was just too hard for them to see him hooked up to machines, when all of their lives he’d been healthy, vibrant and VERY opinionated (grandpa was a good Republican, sigh…). So, the primary duties fell to Mom — and then to me.
I simply couldn’t let my Mom do it on her own… As a nurse, mom has been with many people as they died — especially working in a nursing home, it’s not an unusual situation…. but it’s never been her own father before…. or, at that point, her husband (they were divorced when Dad died suddenly).
Earlier in the week, Mom went in to change Grandpa’s hearing aid battery. He was generally non-responsive to stimulation or conversation, but when the battery squealed in his ear, he winced. Mom realized he was having some sensations and everyone agreed that he wouldn’t want to live like that for longer than was necessary.
So, Tuesday would be the day. On Monday afternoon, Grandma was being discharged from the hospital. Mom took her down to see Grandpa twice (she forgot she went the first time..). After the second time, she said “He’d hate to live like that. I had him for 70 years, that’s more than I can ask for.”… and she said goodbye to him.
Tuesday morning, was quite peaceful. The medical team gathered, nurses and doctors and technicians. It was kind of a formality, just to insure that everyone was on the same page — it was time to stop life support.
At the end of the meeting a sweet, kind southern gentleman nurse said to my mom “My beliefs wouldn’t permit me to do this with my family, but I respect your family’s beliefs and I think you are doing the right thing for your circumstances.”… quite different than Dr. Perky.
Then, they began by lowering the lights and increasing Grandpa’s pain medication. Next, they started to remove the tubes and lines going in and out of his body. Grandpa’s kidneys weren’t working properly, so his limbs were pretty bloated and his face didn’t look like I remembered.
As they worked, mom talked to him — saying that we all love him and will miss him, but that it was time for him to go. She said that I was there with her and that we’d take good care of Grandma.
Eventually, they got to the breathing tube. It was the last thing to go and Mom told me what could happen — so I wasn’t shocked….I was kind of afraid of what might happen if he didn’t die, but just lingered in his non-communicative state. I seriously wondered if Dr. Kervorkian made house calls to Florida, before realizing he was probably still in jail.
What I saw was the most peaceful death I could imagine. Grandpa just slowed down– breathing, heart rate, oxygen etc… all on the monitor, all slowly declined over about an hour or so. Mom held his hand and we spoke softly to him… recalling funny stories and telling him it was ok to die.
And it was ok to die.
This experience taught me many things, (besides the value of going to Costco.com to order a urn… and never to put Euthanasia on the syllabus at the same time for Ethics and Bioethics), but the best part about it was the honor of being the only grandchild with my Grandpa when he passed — and it was an honor.