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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Advance planning for the end of life: My answer to healing

Tory Zellick's story:
When we were much closer to the end of my mother's life, unbeknownst to us, she developed hypercalcemia [raised calcium level in the blood].  I was 24 at the time, and had already been her care partner for six years.  We'd started butting heads, as mothers and daughters do.  

Because of her shift in awareness, we started searching for a brain tumor.  Nothing was found to explain the change in her cognitive function.  To restore family balance, Dad whisked Mom away for a one one vacation.  While on the trip to Mexico, she got a urinary tract infection.  The kidney and liver can only process so much, so the calcium built up even more in her blood.  Her hallucinations continued.

We went to the Emergency Room of our hospital in Chico, California.  When admitted through the Emergency Room, you tend to deal with a hospitalist, not a physician who is familiar with one's illness/ailment.  We called her oncologist, who turned out to be out of town for the week.  But because we'd had the conversations with my mother, we knew she did NOT want cardiopulmonary resuscitation or a feeding tube.  We'd had the talk about the durable power of attorney.  She'd explained everything that she did and didn't want.  We'd contacted the lawyer, and had Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) and Do Not Intubate (DNI) orders already written.  We had a full understanding of what she felt was a good quality of life.  

As it became clear that end of life decisions needed to be made, we felt comfortable that we were fully prepared as a family.  We had what I call our "care team":  physicians, insurance broker, attorney, etc.  Being organized allowed me to have the information I needed at my fingertips to make appropriate decisions, and call the correct people when I needed certain questions answered, tests run, or scans compared.  

After comparing scans of Mom's liver over the past six-week period, it was apparent that the cancer had metastasized to her soft tissue, and that the hypercalcemia would be a quick and painless way for her to exit this life.  Quality of life was something she valued much more than time itself.   As a family, we decided to take her home and allow her to pass in the home she had raised her children in, as she had requested when we had the discussions about end-of-life when she was relatively healthy. 

This kind of situation can be overwhelming.  Your incredible, functioning brain will quickly begin to misfire.  But if you have everything organized, have had the difficult conversations about end-of-life and have the appropriate documents in order, it's much easier to make the decision best suited to the patient.

Years earlier, we'd been able to have the conversations about the end of life because my grandfather had been grappling with renal cancer for as long as I could remember.  My other grandfather had died when I was five, so we'd always talked openly about death. 

We weren't raised in any Western religion, but those who have some spirituality should contact their reverend, priest, etc., if they're looking for a guide to have such conversations.  We looked deep in ourselves to know what to do.  We sat in the living room, and discussed each of our wishes.  Our parents presented it to us that we should all know what everyone's wishes were.  An 18-year-old could get into a car accident and suffer a traumatic brain injury; this talk wasn't just for the oldest or sickest person in the family.  By incorporating the whole family and not just one ill individual, it helps by not isolating the patient about their own personal mortality.  It's not pointing the finger at any one person; it's something that everyone should do.

After my mother passed away, I created a workbook full of helpful tips and worksheets to help any caregiver avoid any unnecessary suffering.  It's my answer to healing, to help other people.  Either way, this journey will define you, when you're faced with a disease like this.

Tory's book, The Medical Day Planner: The Guide to Help Navigate the Medical Maze, provides insight and guidance to patients and their families and caregivers.  It's available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com.  Check out her website:  AllThingsCaregiver, and read another caregiver's story.

Thanks to Claudia Schou of Media Boutique for connecting us.

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