Monday, April 22, 2013

Modern Medicine

Four weeks ago, Mike-- our handyman at Anawim and good friend-- fell and hit his head on a sidewalk near our house.  He happened to fall in front of the police, who saw he wasn't getting up, so they picked him up and took him to the hospital. It turned out he had blood on his brain, which caused a severe memory lapse. Health-wise, he wasn't doing well, so the kept him in ICU.

Mike also drank daily, and being without alcohol put him into shock.  They sedated him in the hospital, but his body wasn't really equipped to deal with such a sudden change.  Complications arose, and his heart stopped, with no oxygen going to his brain for a short period of time.  He remained sedated for a week, and when he came out, he didn't respond to anyone.  He is alive, but he isn't there.  Today they will take out his ventilator tube and he will die.

I thought I was prepared for this, but I'm really not.

If he had just dropped dead, or not woken up one day, I was ready for that.  But death doesn't seem to work that way anymore.  I've had dozens of my friends die, but usually it is sudden, or they make choices to (basically) end their lives by their actions.  Mike wasn't like that, neither was Rick who was in my house last year.  And death isn't sudden, but a long, drawn out process.  When we have hope and very, very gradually, that hope is dashed until we realize that they will linger, as different people, and just fade away, as completely different people than who they were the rest of their lives.

Not only that, but I find myself (as a pastor of people who are often estranged from their family) making life and death choices that family should be doing.  I'm not complaining about this so much as realizing that I am not emotionally prepared to deal with this.  Almost all of us have to make these kinds of choices for our parents as they grow older, but to have this long-term grief, and anger, and being "wise" (or at least boldly faking it) for many people is too difficult for anyone.

I remember a few years ago wishing that family didn't have as much power over people they didn't really know.  I've had family call me and tell me that they were glad that their homeless family member was dead.  I've had family call me and blame me for their deaths because I didn't force them to make better choices.   Family like that shouldn't really be making life and death decisions.  On the other hand, the burden of making these choices, and not knowing if one has the right to make these decisions, as well as wondering if I'm smart enough or wise enough or worthy to make such choices.

Especially when I am struggling deeply with the ethical issues that our increased medicine gives us.  More and more often choices have to be made for people who are mentally incapacitated.  We-- family members or otherwise-- are asked "what would they chose in this situation?", and there is, of course, no answer, unless they have a living will.   They haven't been in this situation before.  And hardly anyone talks to their friends about what they would want if they were going to live their lives in a lower mental capacity for the rest of their lives.  It's all guesswork.

Mike's daughter was found.  It turns out that she hadn't seen him for fifteen years, even though he claimed to have seen her every couple months.  He has two grandsons he had never seen.  Sarah, his daughter, last saw him when she was learning how to drive at 16.  Now she sees him, unconscious, almost dead.  She never learned who her father was, really.  Now she is the one to decide whether he will live or die.  I feel horrible for her.  It must be terrible to be responsible for someone you loved but didn't really know.  It must be so hard to know that you will never get to know your own father, even though he is right there, in front of you.

Things are much more complicated than they used to be.  Years ago, Mike might have just died.  Or we would have taken him home, made sure he had his beers, and he would still be alive, if a bit impaired.  We would have made the life and death decisions, who have lived with him and loved him for the last seven years.  Sarah still would be ignorant of what happened.  I'm not saying the old system is better.  But I think I could process all this better the old way.

Honestly, I'm not upset at anything that happened along the way.  I'm just processing.  Long death is so difficult.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really sorry to hear about Mike. I was able to get to know him a little. He loved to read. He loved Hemingway and read all the books he could find.