Who Wants to be a Vegetable?

I haven’t written anything for a while because my father passed away. As a society, we don’t talk about death very much and I didn’t have a clue how to deal with it. I even googled “grieving for a parent” at one point. Now, I have some observations about death and grieving that I thought some might find useful either personally or when supporting others going through the process. Periodically we see in the news a situation where someone is in a coma and relatives are fighting over whether or not to remove life support. When these things are portrayed in the media it seems clear that the person is never going to wake up again; but it’s a lot less clear in real life. Any time the subject came up, my father would make it very clear that he did not want to be hooked up to machines, did not want to be a vegetable, did not want someone else “wiping his tushy,” etc. But somehow, I never really thought it would be an issue. My father had several heart attacks over the years, and I had just assumed that with each heart attack he would either live or he wouldn’t. It never occurred to me that one of the heart attacks would leave him mostly dead and that I would be responsible for deciding whether or not to “remove care.”

When I arrived at the hospital in Florida and he was hooked up to a ventilator an IV and was being given large doses of drugs to keep his blood pressure up. Doctors told me that “it is very serious,” that it “doesn’t look good”, that “if he survives he will be in recovery for a very long time.” It was not immediately obvious to me that he was being kept alive by machines. Why do they do they hook people up to those machines in the first place? Presumably some of those people get better – otherwise there wouldn’t really be a point. The bottom line is that this is far more of a gray area than I ever realized. After talking to my brother and working myself up to tell the doctors I discovered that I had to get specific – Should they remove the breathing tube? Should they remove the blood pressure drugs?

All things considered, this was the easiest it could have been. I had the appropriate legal documents giving me and my brother medical power of attorney. My Dad had always been clear about not wanting extreme measures. In retrospect, it is also clear that he was pretty much dead before he arrived at the hospital and that there was never really a chance of waking up. Yet, it was difficult even under these circumstances. For what its worth, I have a couple observations (1) It’s nice to give the responsibility to more than one person so no one has to make the decision by themselves. (2) If you tell people you don’t want to be hooked up to machines be as clear as possible about it. How long do you want people to wait before assuming that you will never wake up? If you are hooked up to intravenous medication does that count as being hooked up to a machine? Exploring this subject with family members may be uncomfortable but it may make your life or the lives of your loved ones easier down the line.