James Cook column: The importance of a living will
On January 28 about 10 a.m. I received a phone call from my younger brother telling me that our mother had had a stroke, had fallen and hit her head. She was being rushed to Mission St. Joseph Hospital in Asheville. I rushed to the hospital and when I got there she could not speak; she had lost her ability to swallow and was paralyzed on her right side.
Mother had made preparations with her attorney in 2010 for me to be her healthcare power of attorney. (Note: It is not necessary to have an attorney prepare healthcare power of attorney forms or a living will.) She had clearly stated all her wishes in these documents and shared those wishes with the family.
In the beginning she required a feeding tube for nutrition and soon started both physical therapy and speech therapy. Over the next few months her speech returned and eventually the feeding tube was removed.
At this point, she was able to voice her wishes and participate in her plan of care. Although I no longer had to make medical decisions on her behalf, I was able to pay her bills without interruption and handle financial obligations because, in her wisdom, she had prepared a general power of attorney that allowed me to do this for her when she was transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Hendersonville.
After three months of rehabilitation, she was preparing for transfer to an assisted living facility. The family was excited about her progress. Although she still had no use of her right arm, she was gaining strength in her legs. There was hope of getting her home soon. All the while, her healthcare team continued to monitor her high blood pressure and diabetes. One week before the planned move to the assisted living facility, she had another stroke.
We were all devastated. My mother had always been a very strong, vibrant and independent woman, with a very strong faith. This second stroke sent her back to the beginning stages of the first stroke, but her body was not responding as well this time. Once again, I was making medical decisions for her. My experience in healthcare helped, but I also knew my mother's strength was fading. Infections began to attack her body and she could no longer speak. She continued to fight. When I met with the doctor he told me the family needed to begin thinking about palliative care and eventually hospice. We began to struggle with the reality of her situation. The doctor asked about inserting another feeding tube. My mother could respond "yes" or "no"at this time with her left hand. She waved her left arm and said, "No!" Her directions were very clear in her living will and power of attorney papers that if there was no chance of recovery, all medical treatments were to stop. I knew at this moment my mother was going to die, it was just a matter of time.
After all the years of standing at the bedside with other families as hospital chaplain, here I was, sitting by my mother, as a son. During this five-month journey I have learned some valuable lessons. Time is very short; we never know what tomorrow holds. Our stories, our memories and our times together are precious. God is always present.
As a son, I continue to move through this grief process. My mother passed away on July 18. She kept every article I have written and every card I ever sent her. She taught her three boys to always learn and grow from every experience and share what we learn. In the midst of our journey through this she continued to teach us the blessing and sacredness of life, relationships and stories. My mother's example of faith in God and her positive outlook on life truly impacted my ability to cope with loss and assist me in my work to help others experiencing similar circumstances.
Parents, old or young, need to prpare a living will and power of attorney so that their wishes will be clear and honored. These documents should be shared with family members and doctor in advance of a major health event. Children in the midst of worry and fear for a beloved parent in these crisis situations will feel supported and comforted knowing they are following a loved one's wishes. It is never easy, but without these documents, the situation is even more difficult.
My family continues to celebrate my mother's life and I dedicate this article in her memory. I know my mother, Sharon Rose Cook, is rejoicing with the Lord this Day!
The Rev. James Cook is a son and chaplain at Rowan Regional Medical Center.