My widowed mother was diagnosed with throat cancer four years prior to her death at age 73. She underwent several surgeries and numerous series of radiation and chemotherapy. As food and entertaining was a huge part of her life, it seemed cruel when the mere act of eating became difficult. Following the throat surgeries, she was on a trachea and a stomach feeding tube. She developed thrush in her mouth. The radiation burned her throat and mouth so severely that even liquids were difficult to take in. Yet she managed her own care very well. When her body ultimately rejected any treatments, she finally allowed her family to care for her. Her last few months of life are really the only times she needed more help than she was able to provide herself. My adult daughter Amy and I cared for her, however we both worked and Amy had small children. We were able to phone Mom during the day, visit in person in the morning, at lunch, or in the evening to check on her. My brother and my husband would often provide transportation to her appointments, or simply go fetch something she requested.
I will never forget the morning her oncologist met with us for the last time. My brother, my husband and I sat with our mom as she was told “Bobbie, you are actively dying.” She stood up and said, “okay,” and walked out of the room.
We went home, made a plan of care for her. We also engaged Pathways Hospice at this time. Amy and I arranged a schedule to stay overnight each night. We asked my cousin and some of my mom’s friends to help during the day. Everyone was eager and willing, so the burden was shared. We simply made certain she was never alone. We had no idea how long this situation would last. During this time her medications were difficult to manage. She was in significant pain. She became dehydrated and disoriented. She frequently needed to be hospitalized for hydration. Her temperature would spike without an identified source. She became incontinent and reluctantly wore diapers. She was very anxious and often agitated. In spite of her occasional appetite, she could just barely sip water. Over the course of time we watched her body dwindle from a robust 160 pounds to a mere 80.
Once her fever spiked to almost 105 degrees, she was admitted to Pathways Hospice Acute Care Center at McKee Medical Center in Loveland where she was administered fluid hydration. Within 24 hours, it was determined her body rejected the attempt. She had also not taken food or water for several days. I met with the Hospice Medical Director who tactfully told me there was nothing more that could be done, other than to keep her comfortable.
Mom lived another four days. I believe she understood what was happening to her. She recognized each of us and was able to communicate with us somewhat. Finally, she shut down and peacefully died.
My biggest frustration throughout this journey was finding information and support. Finally, once Hospice became involved with her care, I was able to step back and regain my role as daughter, rather than “nurse.” I have no medical skills and the care she required was beyond my skill set at times. I was uncomfortable administering the pain meds. And although I had learned to use her feeding tube, I never felt at ease with the process – administering the nutrition, the timeliness of it, and cleaning process. It was evident that she sensed my uneasiness. She relaxed when the hospice nurses did their work so effortlessly, rather than watch me stumble through it.
Watching my mother slowly die was extremely difficult for me, yet the time spent with her was rewarding. It was a challenge and a joy to care for my sweet mother. It was a gift.
Mother: Barbara “Bobbie” Brooks
Died: August 4, 2004