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This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post. Posted here with permission.
“You are treating her like she’s a piece of meat,” Tony was shouting angrily at me. I hadn’t the power to change the care his 62-year-old wife was receiving in my hospital’s intensive care unit—for the past two years, I had been their psychologist, not nephrologist—but, for the moment, I became the embodiment of all Medical Authority. “She just lies there, unconscious and horribly swollen. You don’t do anything for her except stick her with more needles.” The look on his face then shifted slightly from accusatory to imploring. But I couldn’t save her.
His wife, Elena, had been bedbound in their tiny apartment in suburban Philadelphia for at least five years because of chronic, severe back and knee pain. She’d become confined there as the result of a series of personal and medical missteps—or, put another way, lack of steps. Once she’d entered middle age and her girth thickened, her joints had started aching because of the increased weight they supported and she consequently walked less. As she’d walked less and took to her “sick” bed more often, she burned fewer calories but never adjusted her diet and consequently gained more and more weight. Taking handfuls of pain pills every day didn’t relieve her joints and propel her off the mattress; instead, they only sedated her into a supine stupor in front of the TV. And the long-term narcotic use gradually took its toll: Her kidneys and other organ systems were now shutting down.
Tony was her devoted enabler. He’d waited on her slavishly, bringing her favorite foods, sitting bedside with her every day for hours to watch TV and listen to her steady complaints. He owed her, he felt, because she had stuck with him through his wild drinking years until he finally sobered up. He’d paid her back by sticking with her through her retreat from the world and now he was still sticking with her in the hospital, like he thought he was supposed to do. He would plead with the doctors to make her whole. He would utter lengthy beseeching prayers during sleepless nights in the armchair in Elena’s ICU room. But he could see that none of it was working. He was frightened for her life. He was afraid he was letting her down.
My job, it seemed to me, was not to try to persuade her medical specialists to make hail-Mary efforts for Tony’s sake. Neither dialysis nor multiple meds were working. My job was to convince him that Elena’s condition had taken a discernible turn. Family psychiatrist John Rolland of the Chicago Center for Family Health has written compellingly about the phases of illness—acute, chronic, terminal—and how hard it is for patients and families to switch their expectations and actions from one phase to another. We all believe at first that our ailments have a cure until some professional tells us that our condition is chronic and that we will have to learn to live with managing the symptoms. We are all lulled into believing that life with that chronic condition will go on and on until the end hits us shockingly like a sucker punch. This is the hard stop on hope.
My job was to convince the husband that his wife’s condition had taken a discernible turn.
“Tony, I’m worried that Elena won’t make it,” I said quietly. He stiffened and said, “No,” but the word sounded more resigned than forceful as if he knew that protesting wouldn’t change anything. We’d worked together for two years and he trusted me. By stating the inevitable first, I was giving him permission to begin thinking about the possibility of her death without feeling guilty. “You’ve been a very good husband to her for a long time,” I went on. And then to suggest a way he could continue to be good to her, I said, “I think it’s time to talk with her doctors about considering hospice.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see,” he said gruffly. Over the next few days he continued to push her physicians to try new interventions as if defying what I’d said. But our short exchange had a started a process. He didn’t want to accept that she was in the terminal phase but he now knew it. When the doctors themselves approached him with the suggestion of taking her off of life supports, he acquiesced. She died a day later.
In our initial meetings in the months afterwards, he was still angry at her doctors and at what he saw as an uncaring world. But time passed and anger abated and he began to allow himself to feel relieved of the burden of caring for her without also feeling guilt for getting rid of her. “You were a good husband,” I kept telling him. With time, he came to see that that didn’t mean preserving her life, but accompanying her through its vicissitudes, termination included.