Last week Sig asked: If you had a fatal illness, who should tell you? Your doctor? A loved one?
How should they say it?
My Dad, 93, was slowly dying. His body was riddled with the prostate cancer he’d lived with – and minimized — for 20 years. He’d signed an advance directive (“no extraordinary measures”) and a health care power of attorney. But he’d made clear that his own death was not a topic of discussion.
One afternoon he told us to call an ambulance. “I just don’t feel right,” he said.
Early next morning, in the hospital, he suffered a massive heart attack. A doctor met me in the hall. “He doesn’t know what happened. We don’t want to frighten him. There’s nothing we can do. We’ll make him comfortable. He might last 24 hours.”
I was sad but not surprised. Dad had fought the good fight. I went in to hold his hand.
He was alert, even cheery. He pretended nothing had happened. “I feel pretty good,” he said through his oxygen mask. “I hope the Redskins win tomorrow.” Denial, full strength. He was not going there.
But a few hours later he asked, “Why aren’t they treating me?”
I tried, “Well, Dad, maybe there’s nothing they can do.”
He was furious. “I’ll fire them and get a new doctor!” He tried to climb out of bed.
When a female doctor appeared a couple of hours later I privately asked her to tell him.
She was kind. She sat beside him, at eye level. She was indirect and used a lot of silence to let him absorb each sentence. She emphasized the things he could control.
“Mr. Miller, your daughter tells me you’re wondering about treatment.” Pause. He nodded. “You’ve suffered a heart attack.” Pause. Nod. “It wasn’t a little one.” Longer pause. “I’m afraid it did a lot of damage. . . . . . We can’t fix it.” A really long pause.
“And you know you also have cancer. . . . . that has spread,” she continued. “That’s why you can’t keep food down.” More silence.
Finally, from Dad, “How long?”
“Not weeks.” [Her phrasing astonished me.] . . . . “Is there anything you need to do?”
Dad looked at me. “No. You’ll take care of Mom (in a nursing home with advanced Alzheimer’s), you know about the money . . .” Then he described the funeral he wanted.
The doctor told him he could choose hospice, he could control his pain medication, and he could decide whether he wanted to go home or stay where he was.
When she left, Dad said, “She said I have two weeks.” Nobody argued with him. He lived four more days.
Carol Holt says
Beautifully written Carolyn. I knew your Dad and he was the kind of man who wanted to hear if from the professional. He was being “treated” as he had asked. No one wants to be ignored as if their situation isn’t important, I think it was being ignored by the medical staff that made him angry. And what a wise doctor to give him time to absorb as much as he could.
Thanks, Carol. Your insight is really important.