Thursday, January 4, 2018

How do you know what's right?

by Giselle Renarde

Christmas with my family wasn’t easy this year.

The week before Christmas, I was trying to get in touch with my mother. She’s got 3 phone numbers (work, home and cell) and she wasn’t answering any of them. When I couldn’t get my mom on the phone, I hovered between worried and irritated. It’s pretty common for my mom not to answer my calls because she’s “too busy” but that’s not what was happening this time.

When I finally got hold of her, she sounded awful. I could barely understand what she was saying. It sounded like her whole body was shaking.

She hadn’t answered my calls because she was too sick to get to the phone, too sick to even move. She’d been vomiting for five days.

I had no idea she was sick. Nobody did, except for my brother who’d been taking care of her. My mom has a very strong constitution. She never gets sick. But if you’d heard her voice on the phone, my god, you’d have been as worried as I was.

But here’s the thing about my mother: she doesn’t like doctors. I mean, I don’t either. I get that from her and she gets it from her father. But last year when I was having heart palpitations and chest pains and all sorts of messed up shit, I let my sister take me to the emergency room.

My mother clearly needed health care, immediately and urgently, but she insisted she was “fine” and she’d recover if we just let her lie on the couch long enough.

I called my sister, the one who lives right down the street from my mom, and asked her, “Did you know that mom’s really sick?” Nope. Of course she didn’t. My mom was hiding from us because she knew what we’d say and she didn’t want to hear it.

My sister brought my mother vitamin water and other supplies. At that point my mother couldn’t keep anything down, not even tea.

Christmas Eve, my siblings all assembled at my mother’s house. At that point, my mom had not eaten anything in a week. She was sick as fuck and we were legitimately concerned she was going to die.

My mother refused to participate in the healthcare system.

We called my aunt and uncle. They offered to come over and carry my mom into their car and drive her to the emergency room.

We gave my mom three options: my aunt and uncle could take her to the hospital, we could take her to the hospital, or we were going to call 911.

She freaked the fuck out. Well, as much as she could considering she was unable to even sit up.

Oh, did I mention that all this was happening concurrent with an E. coli outbreak in my region? Yeah, and my mother’s symptoms matched up pretty precisely. One of my sisters happens to be a scientist working on her PhD in disease epidemics, and she was the one who brought the E. coli outbreak to my attention. The fact that she was concerned, and that I know this is something people die from even when they’re in hospital, had me so worried I actually expressed emotions around my family. And I never do that.

I spent Christmas Eve screaming at my mother.

I said, “People care about you! People want to help! We’re not going to let you die just because you’re too stubborn to go to the hospital!”

That’s all it was. Stubbornness.

And fear.

I kept asking, “What are you so afraid of?” and that’s a question she wouldn’t answer. Because I’m pretty sure the answer in her mind was: if I go to the hospital, I’m going to die. That’s what people in hospitals do.

My mother adamantly and belligerently refused medical care. She wouldn’t allow us or my aunt and uncle to take her to the emergency room. Clearly, she needed IV fluids. We needed to know what was wrong with her. But she begged us not to call 911. Begged us. “Just let me stay here on the couch. Please, I don’t want to go to the hospital!”

Ultimately, I guess she won, because we didn’t call 911. We said we were going to… but we didn’t.

I told my mother she’s her father’s daughter, and she accepted that title gladly. My grandfather didn’t like doctors either. He had shrapnel embedded in his lungs from WWII, and toward the end he had tremendous trouble breathing, but he wouldn’t accept medical care or oxygen in-home. He’d signed documents, power of attorney type things, I don’t know, saying that he refused to be admitted to hospital if he was incapacitated. DNR type stuff. He was serious.

But when he had a stroke, my grandmother called 911. Exactly what he didn’t want, but he was incapacitated at the time. In order to admit him to hospital, she had to lie to medical professionals. She told them he had said to her that he changed his mind, that he wanted hospital care. That’s the exact opposite of what he wanted. My grandmother tells me she did it for herself. She wasn’t ready to lose him yet, and she didn’t want him to die in the house.

He died in hospital about a week later.

I don’t know what’s right in this situation. I don’t know what is the right thing to do.

When you’re dealing with a child, you can impose your will on them. You can take your child to the hospital when they’re sick. But when we’re talking about another adult? When it’s your parent? When they clearly require immediate medical attention and they refuse it? What is the right thing to do? Impose my will on my mother? Call 911 even when she’s told us not to?

Acting in someone else’s best interest is a complicated thing. Older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser, but I was also taught to respect my elders.

My mother hasn’t fully recovered from whatever mystery illness is in her body. She’s eating again. My brother is caring for her. But when my girlfriend saw the state of my mom yesterday, the first thing she said when we left was, “Your mother needs to be in a hospital.”

You try telling her that.


  1. OMG, Giselle. If it's the E. coli outbreak that apparently came from Romaine lettuce, I watched the TV news when a map of Canada was shown, with affected regions in red, and Saskatchewan was not one of them. However, some local folks are very nervous around store-bought lettuce. When my elderly parents resisted going to an assisted-care home, my sister overruled them, case closed. I don't approve of everything she does, but in this case, I think it was the right thing.

  2. That's so scary, Giselle. What a tough decision to make. I think your question about whether one should overrule an adult's strong preference is legitimate and difficult to answer.

    My husband tells me that he does not want to live in a physically or mentally incapacitated state. If he is ever in that sort of condition, he wants to commit suicide. I can understand his desires--but if that situation ever arises (and I pray that it does not), am I required to help him end his life? Or stand by and let him? Would I be able to do that? Would that be the right thing to do?

    Very, very tough call.

  3. It's really a grueling situation. Besides what the parent wants, I've heard that there are cases where the daughter or son can be prosecuted for "endangerment" or neglect of the elderly. I'm my father's health proxy, and I've wondered what to do if he dug in his heels and insisted on staying alone in his home (with someone, friends and family, coming to check on him every day) even after too-frequent falls and hospitalizations, but now that the time has come when the social services at the rehab facility where he is now say that he has to be continuously monitored, he seems to be sad, but resigned, and says he wants what's easiest for my two brothers and me. So we're moving him next week to a nursing facility near one of the brothers and me. I'm very sad about it, too, but at least I won't have to worry constantly and drive over an hour to cope with things like a fire in his microwave and flooding because he left the water running in the sink overnight with the plug down--and injuries that I find out about when the medic alert people call me in the middle of the night to say that he pushed his button and they've sent the EMTs to his house.

    Christmas with my family wasn't exactly easy, either, but nowhere near as heart-racking and gut-wrenching as yours, Giselle. I hope things get better.

  4. We've heard about that E. coli outbreak and it is scary. Yesterday, I threw out a newly-bought 3-pack of Romaine.

    I don't know what I'd have done in your situation, Giselle. Both my parents took advantage of treatment so there wasn't any conflict in that area. I know I'm alive because of modern medical practices so I'm not adverse to being saved again as long as I could still lead a somewhat productive life.

    I have a friend who was raised a Christian Scientist. Although he has rejected that religion, he still has weirdnesses about seeing a doctor. Like it's something shameful. He refuses to go with his wife when she goes for her doctor visits, and doesn't want her there for his. On the contrary, Momma X and I attend each other's appointments, if only to catch what information the other misses or misconstrues in that alien atmosphere.


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