The process. Part I.

Until three years ago Julian played catch with this orange ball in an effort to maintain his balance as the Parkinson’s continued to advance. ©Eli Reichman, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Since his service as a Navy transport pilot in World War II, Julian’s first love has always been flying.  Following the war he bought a single engine plane, continuing to fly until suffering a severe heart attack in early 1990.  Shortly thereafter, when the FAA would not renew his license he sold his beloved Navion.  One more year and he would have held his pilots license for 50 years.  In 2004, Dad was at fault in four automobile accidents in less than a year.  Thankfully no one suffered anything beyond minor injuries in any of those fender-benders.  At the age of 82 Julian acknowledged he was no longer able to safely drive a car.  His overall health continued to deteriorate until it was obvious that my stepmother could no longer care for him.  In August 2008 dad moved into a small northeastern Kansas nursing home.  He sits there today like so many of our elders, receiving three square meals a day, religiously taking his prescribed medications at the appointed hour, having his diapers changed by the staff, watching TV, and playing bingo.  At times, I think he’s got it pretty good (except for the bingo – I’m not a fan).  And yet I recognize this interminably slow and deliberate march towards death is full of pain on many different levels.

In the 1850’s the average American life expectancy was only 39 years.  Improved living conditions and consistent food production have impacted our longevity considerably, but hasn’t the advent of pharmaceuticals with their ability to manage so many different deadly diseases had the most significant impact on our increased longevity?  When I watch the vast array of drugs being pumped into my dad’s body it’s hard to see it any differently.  Remove any one of the medications from his bloodstream for more than just a few hours and the entire system begins collapsing.  I witnessed this dramatic transformation firsthand when Julian quit taking his medications shortly before the nursing home transition.  As the doctor said, without the drugs he would have died within a few days.

Like so many others, my dad’s physical decline has been a methodical and degrading process.  Through the years I’ve heard many people say that life can be unfair and cruel.  Recently an old friend summed it up more appropriately.  Death sucks!  If dying is simply a systematic progression of nature why do individuals and society attempt to forestall its reasonable conclusion?  Lately, I’ve been questioning if contemporary medicine has strayed too far from the Hippocratic oath.  At what point do we say enough?

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6 thoughts on “The process. Part I.

  1. Eli-

    Reading this made me cry and remember a man that used to be so independent. I would love copies of any pics that you might have of he and gram together. Thanks for posting this!!!

  2. Eli, it’s not the end or the beginning…but what we do with what God has given us during the short time we have here on this earth. It’s no fun to watch a loved one in the winter of there life. So remember the good, special times. Spend as much time trying to give back even a small portion of what they tried to give us. Hopefully we will all be laughing together in a much better place.

  3. As a hospice and palliative medicine doc, I would be remiss not to comment this time, Eli. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your dad’s journey. End-of-life care and care for those with chronic illness is evolving quickly all over the United States. We are changing the culture of medicine. To many it may not be obvious yet, but I believe we are beginning on a larger scale to put the focus on what patients and families want, onto what is meaningful for each person. Sometimes that involves high-tech aggressive therapies, sometimes it does not. I won’t ask you for patience, but don’t give up on the oath yet.

  4. I know of a Canadian woman who died in her sleep at 100+ years. She had never set foot in a doctor’s office her entire life. She had a life of eating well and enjoying friends. This story kind of makes
    death seem beautiful. Thanks for your thought provoking commentary, Eli.

  5. Western medicine practically tortured my Dad for 5 years. He died less than 24 hours after my mom checked him into hospice care.He had a very strong will to live, but not like that. Poignant essay.

  6. Brings me to tears. We seem to have lost our way in the ritual of dying. Beautiful essay Eli.

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