Confronting the End
Then came the autumn day when she asked for my help, and I said yes. I told myself that we were simply trying to undo a terrible medical mistake. I reminded myself that my dad had rejected a pacemaker when his faculties were intact. I imagined, as a bioethicist had suggested, having a 15-minute conversation with my independent, predementia father in which I saw him shaking his head in horror over any further extension of what was not a “life,” but a prolonged and attenuated dying. None of it helped. I knew that once he died, I would dream of him and miss his mute, loving smiles. I wanted to melt into the arms of the father I once had and ask him to handle this. Instead, I felt as if I were signing on as his executioner and that I had no choice.
Over the next five months, my mother and I learned many things. We were told, by the Hemlock Society’s successor, Compassion and Choices, that as my father’s medical proxy, my mother had the legal right to ask for the withdrawal of any treatment and that the pacemaker was, in theory at least, a form of medical treatment. We learned that although my father’s living will requested no life support if he were comatose or dying, it said nothing about dementia and did not define a pacemaker as life support. We learned that if we called 911, emergency medical technicians would not honor my father’s do-not-resuscitate order unless he wore a state-issued orange hospital bracelet. We also learned that no cardiology association had given its members clear guidance on when, or whether, deactivating pacemakers was ethical.
(That changed in spring 2010. The Heart Rhythm Society and the American Heart Association issued guidelines declaring that patients or their legal surrogates have the moral and legal right to request the withdrawal of any medical treatment, including an implanted cardiac device. It said that deactivating a pacemaker was neither euthanasia nor assisted suicide, and that a doctor could not be compelled to do so in violation of his moral values. In such cases, it continued, doctors “cannot abandon the patient but should involve a colleague who is willing to carry out the procedure.” This came, of course, too late for us.)
In the spring of 2008, things got even worse. My father took to roaring like a lion at his caregivers. At home in California, I searched the Internet for a sympathetic cardiologist and a caregiver to put my Dad to bed at night. My frayed mother began to shout at him, and their nighttime scenes were heartbreaking and frightening. An Alzheimer’s Association support-group leader suggested that my brothers and I fly out together and institutionalize my father. This leader did not know my mother’s formidable will and had never heard her speak about her wedding vows or her love.
Meanwhile my father drifted into what nurses call “the dwindles”: not sick enough to qualify for hospice care, but sick enough to never get better. He fell repeatedly at night and my mother could not pick him up. Finally, he was weak enough to qualify for palliative care, and a team of nurses and social workers visited the house. His chest grew wheezy. My mother did not request antibiotics. In mid-April 2008, he was taken by ambulance to Middlesex Hospital’s hospice wing, suffering from pneumonia.
Pneumonia was once called “the old man’s friend” for its promise of an easy death. That’s not what I saw when I flew in. On morphine, unreachable, his eyes shut, my beloved father was breathing as hard and regularly as a machine.
My mother sat holding his hand, weeping and begging for forgiveness for her impatience. She sat by him in agony. She beseeched his doctors and nurses to increase his morphine dose and to turn off the pacemaker. It was a weekend, and the doctor on call at Rogan’s cardiology practice refused authorization, saying that my father “might die immediately.” And so came five days of hard labor. My mother and I stayed by him in shifts, while his breathing became increasingly ragged and his feet slowly started to turn blue. I began drafting an appeal to the hospital ethics committee. My brothers flew in.
On a Tuesday afternoon, with my mother at his side, my father stopped breathing. A hospice nurse hung a blue light on the outside of his hospital door. Inside his chest, his pacemaker was still quietly pulsing.
After his memorial service in the Wesleyan University chapel, I carried a box from the crematory into the woods of an old convent where he and I often walked. It was late April, overcast and cold. By the side of a stream, I opened the box, scooped out a handful of ashes and threw them into the swirling water. There were some curious spiraled metal wires, perhaps the leads of his pacemaker, mixed with the white dust and pieces of bone.