Two long weeks

The past two weeks have been rough. I’ve got a lot to talk about, but I’m really having trouble figuring out how to get started. So, I’m going to just write and see where this goes. I’ll consider this my therapy.

It was Wednesday and my sister called. Mom was just rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. She was having trouble breathing. She had a specific hospital she wanted to be taken to, but they felt her condition was so bad, they rushed her to the nearest hospital instead; Torrance Memorial Medical Center. More on them later.

We were already planning to go to California on Thursday evening so we could be there for Mom’s surgery. She was going to have the batteries replaced in her pacemaker. I asked if I should come out sooner, but she said no. Within an hour, my sister called back. The doctor said our mother was very ill and I should come quickly. I was concerned, but can’t say that I was scared at this point.

I was driving quickly, but safely, and then we received a text. “What is your ETA?” Now I’m scared.

On a drive I’ve taken hundreds of times, I managed to take a wrong interchange and added 15 minutes to our trip. Terrible thoughts of my mom dying minutes before I arrive to see her had me feeling even worse. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

When we arrived, she was sedated and on a ventilator. Her breathing was labored to the point that each breath had her body lurching. I immediately started to mentally prepare for the worst. It looked like she wouldn’t make it through the night. And then she did.

Over the next couple days, things calmed down. Mom was sedated and they focused on clearing up the respiratory infection she was fighting. Somewhere along the way, mom’s kidneys stopped working and they would eventually need to do dialysis. She was retaining water and we could see swelling in her extremities. But, we were focusing on the positives. Her blood pressure started to stabilize, and they seemed to be getting the infection under control.

We had asked about her pacemaker procedure and if they were planning on doing that while she was in the hospital since it would be pretty convenient. To this point, it hadn’t been brought up much because she was so sick initially that they wouldn’t even think of putting her body through the trauma of it. But, on Friday or Saturday, one of the doctors came in and told us that as soon as she stabilized, they would get it scheduled and take care of the pacemaker while she was there. This was extremely reassuring. Now we just needed to wait for her to get better.

When Sunday rolled around, it seemed like we were in a holding pattern. I decided to head back to Vegas. That was a very difficult thing to do, but I was completely unable to get any work done while at the hospital, and I knew I could be back in LA in about 6 hours if needed.

During the week they performed dialysis a number of times and took 1-3 liters of liquid out of her body each time. This helped the swelling. Unfortunately, her kidneys never kicked back into gear. The doctors also mentioned that there was liver damage, but they didn’t know to what level. At one point they wanted to test if she could breathe on her own, so they turn off the ventilator and she was on her own for 12 hours. Another huge positive, we thought. They would try it a couple more times over the next few days, and the results were less positive each time.

It’s probably important to mention that during the week, they had taken her off the sedation and lowered her pain medication. All of this was in an effort to get her to wake up. That didn’t happen. There were times when she would move around a bit, but at no time would she respond directly to commands. And her eyes opened from time to time as well, but there wasn’t anything behind them.

Somewhere along the way, not sure exactly when as several of the days all ran together, we were told that patients in this condition were basically given 2 weeks in ICU. By that time they would either be on the road to recovery, or it would be time to start having the end of life discussions. A week has passed by this time, so we still had about a week before any major conversations needed to happen.

On Friday, as soon as work was over, we headed back to California and directly to the hospital. The nurse taking care of mom was having an issue with her feeding tube. It was clogged or something. We didn’t stay very long before going to my sister’s house to get some sleep. When we got back in the morning, we found out that the issue with the feeding tube was due to blood pooling in mom’s stomach. They have stopped using the feeding tube to push food in, but instead as a suction to remove the blood. They had removed about 3 cups. Her feeding tube wouldn’t be used for food again.

They weren’t sure where the bleeding was coming from, and to find out would require an endoscopy. The problem is, mom’s body was so weak, they felt the procedure could actually do more harm than good, so they held off on that.

During the next round of Dialysis, they ended up giving mom a blood transfusion because she had lost so much. She got 3 units during Dialysis and another later that day. More blood would end up being suctioned out of her stomach over the next couple days.

By Saturday, I think we all knew things weren’t going to end with mom going home. We started telling friends and family that if they wanted to come say goodbye, now was the time.

On Sunday evening, I had the opportunity to sit alone with mom for quite a while. I played music that we listened to together when I was a kid and she would drive me to school. Supertramp, Styx, Queen and Pink Floyd. We listened. I sang to her. I cried. I told her stories. I cried some more.

On Monday morning, we stopped by the hospital and let our children say goodbye to grandma. Chris and I had an appointment in Las Vegas on Tuesday that we absolutely couldn’t miss and couldn’t be moved. So as hard as it was to leave the previous week, this was worse. We got back to Vegas Monday afternoon, and 18 hours later, Chris and I left the kids at home and headed back to California for what we knew was coming.

While we were on the road, a long time friend of the family, Allison, came to the hospital and did my mom’s hair.

Then, not too long after we arrived, my sister and I spoke with the nurse and let them know it was time.

Now, I have to tell you, I had no idea what the next process was going to look like. I also didn’t know if it was going to be immediate or if we were about to wait a week. Knowing my mom and what her wishes would be, I could only hope that the process was relatively quick and painless.

The nurses were just getting ready to switch shifts. We asked who the night nurse was going to be and my sister and I both had a huge relief when they told us it would be Vanessa. While all of the staff had been great, Vanessa really clicked with us. We knew mom was in good hands and it was very comforting.

Vanessa came in and explained what was going to happen. They would replace the sedation medication with a comfortable level of morphine, her breathing tube would be removed and over the course of the next 5 hours or so, she would eventually stop breathing.

Prior to starting the process, my dad played a few songs on his guitar and sang to mom. One of which he wrote for her the night before and another that he wrote for her and sang on their wedding day. I had heard that song many times over the years, but it felt really special to hear it then.

There was a notebook brought from my mom’s house that she had been writing out some of her favorite memories. Over the course of the next few hours, we read her notebook, listened to music, told stories, laughed and cried.

Then, at 1:18 AM on Wednesday morning, mom took her last breath.

“If you knew my mom…”

I have a pretty warped sense of humor. I get that from my mom.

I can’t tell you how many times over the course of the past two weeks something would happen that would make us laugh and we’d tell the nurse, doctor or technician in the room at the time, “If you knew my mom…” I’m sure they thought we were insane, but I absolutely love that about our family. We’re weird. We find humor in odd situations. And these past couple weeks were definitely that. Yet, we still were able to find humor in things going on.

That last night we spent in her room was a celebration. And if you knew my mom, she’d have had it no other way. Laughter, music, stories and a few tears.

We all process thing differently

By the time I left the hospital on Monday, I had made peace with the fact that I was losing my mom. So by the time we got back on Tuesday afternoon, my mood was different. I didn’t feel overly sad. Actually, I was in a spot where I was finding humor in things. Which, for me, was a great thing. It was how I was coping with the situation. But I really needed to be careful with that, because there were others who were grieving in their own way and my laughter may not have been appropriate. I’ll give you an example.

A family member was sitting in the chair next to mom, holder her hand, playing some music on a phone. I came up behind them, wrapped my arms around them and was whispering in their ear, “Everything is going to be alright.” When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was the phone playing music. In big letters across the screen of the phone, it read “Battery extremely low.” It struck me funny in that moment, and it was all I could do not to laugh, but I’m not sure the person I was hugging would have laughed right then. (I did tell them the story the next day and we both agreed that my mom would most certainly have found the humor in it, too)

Torrance Memorial Medical Center

I can’t say enough nice things about the staff that cared for my mom. They were really tremendous. We were given 24/7 access to the ICU, and they let us bend rules to accommodate friends and family at all hours. They treated my mom with the utmost compassion and respect from beginning to end.

When you spend that many hours as a visitor of a hospital, there are other things besides the staff that you come to appreciate as well. Their cafe served decent food and they had a Starbucks that was open late. The parking lot was close to the door that led to a close elevator that took us directly to ICU. So, getting from the garage into mom’s room was no more than 3-4 minutes. When you are rushing from Vegas to see your mom in ICU, believe me when I say this was a blessing. It didn’t hurt that the garage was well lit and there was security around, so even if you needed to go out in the middle of the night alone, there was a strong sense of safety and security.

My sister and I had several conversations with the nurses, and I have to say, I find their jobs fascinating. Yes, they are trying to care for people who are sick and often times dying. But, that’s not their only job. They have to play host to well-meaning family members who aren’t always making decisions with the patient’s best interest in mind. I know I only saw a microcosm of what they have to deal with, but it was enough for me to realize that profession takes a very specialized set of skills… and I’m not even talking about the medical aspect. I tip my hat to all of them.

Character revealed

I’ve always known my sister is pretty awesome. But these past two weeks have shown that she may actually be super-human. First off, I don’t know that any other person spent more time at mom’s bedside than my sister. And yet, she took on so much more during that time that it simply blows my mind.

My mom had put her in charge of making decisions for her at the hospital. This is a pretty big weight to carry, and she handled it flawlessly. We all wanted to respect my mom’s wishes, but when a family member is unconscious and you can’t ask them to clarify things, being in charge can be overwhelming. It also means that you sometimes have to step in and tell people when they are overstepping their bounds. She handled it like a pro and I’m so very proud of her.

Handling that responsibility would have been enough. But she still found time to make sure Chris, the kids and I had a place to stay and that each friend and family member was able to get some private time with mom. Oh, she also took the time to make a gift basket for the nurses at the hospital. Over and over, time and time again, she put others’ needs and feelings ahead of her own.

And through it all, she never lost her sense of humor. I told this story on Facebook, but it’s too good not to share here as well.

Wednesday morning, a small group of us went to breakfast. After we finished breakfast, Chris and I were going to hop in the car and head back to Vegas. As I hugged my sister tight, I whispered to her, “You are amazing. You have taken care of everybody for the last two weeks, now it is time for you to get some rest and take care of yourself. You are the best thing mom ever did.”

She simply responded, “I know.”

We both cracked up.

Nichole, you really are amazing and I love you so much.

Mom left a lasting impression

I can’t tell you how many nice notes and words of encouragement I received from friends and family near and far. So many facebook posts, texts, calls and visits that I couldn’t keep up with responding to them all. So let me just say now, from the bottom of my heart, thank you all very much. Your support was definitely felt and means a lot to me and my family.

It warmed my heart every time somebody would send a note and tell us a story about how my mom had touched their lives. From childhood friends, family members, coworkers, friends of friends… seriously, just so many. You know your mom played a big role in your own life, but it’s easy to forget that she probably played a role in others’, too. That was obviously the case with my mom and makes me swell with pride.

If you have a story you’d like to share, please head over to this post and tell your story in the comment section. There is already a number of them there and I hope they continue to pour in. If you think of more stories, don’t be shy, please tell them all.

Mom, I love you so much and I’m going to miss you always.

4 Comments

  1. Jenni Swartz said:

    beautifully said! thank you for sharing this with us. She made a couple of amazing people and I am so blessed to know you both!

    January 21, 2017
    Reply
  2. Kammie mondabaugh said:

    So, I already put my story on your post. But, I just read your story. The tears are flowing. And not just sad, but happy as well. That was a long two weeks! You put it in writing I couldn’t have, but felt the same way. I really thank you for letting me be there the whole time. You and nik nik are such amazing people. No materr how sad or how hard it was for any of our family, you guys helped us. I have auntie Cheryl’s humor as well as a couple of you,( Johnny) it’s not always appropriate but, we think we’re hysterical. Lol
    I love you guys and please know I’m always here for all of you. Love you

    January 21, 2017
    Reply
  3. Paula Mraz said:

    Hi John, I never knew your mom and I don’t know you. But, I do know your sister Nicole. Yes she is an amazing, sweet and kind woman, that I am proud to call friend. 12 years ago, I lost my brother due to an accident down on the docks. He was a long shore man also. She was always there for Adriana ( my brothers wife) and would bring us snacks that she would make especially her chocolate covered pretzels. I know she also has some amazing kids. Please know that I am so sorry for your loss. Torrance memorial is the best. My neighbor Danielle Cosgrove works with hospice at the hospital and she is another amazing woman. My family has the same sense of humor that your family has, so I know even if we hadn’t known your mom, we would have laughed at your story’s! Oh! One more thing. When my father had a stroke and in the hospital dying, we also did what your family did. Played music told stories and laughed. We still do that to this day.
    God bless you all.
    Love,
    Paula Mraz

    January 23, 2017
    Reply
  4. Pamela Crenshaw said:

    John thank you so much for sharing your memories with all of us. I am so deeply sorry for the loss of your mom and my best friend in the world. I wish I could have been there more than one day but I had surgery and the trip from Hollywood to Torrance is not far however it seems 100 miles away with this knee surgery. I love your mom as my own sister and there is not a day go by that I don’t think of her. It doesn’t seem real she’s gone. I went to see her January 10th on my birthday and prayed for her at her bedside. She never forgets to call me every birthday but this time she couldn’t. I hated seeing her so sick and saying goodbye. I was praying for her healing and didn’t want that to be the last day I ever saw her again. I miss Cheryls laughter and sarcastic jokes that forever had me laughing. Thank you for putting together and sharing these wonderful memories from friends and family that we all can treasure for the rest of our lives.

    February 19, 2017
    Reply

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