My mother passed away yesterday after a grueling year of battling many health issues. She had spent more days in the hospital than out of it in the last 6 months. It seemed she had turned a corner, but then last week she was was readmitted and discovered to have Covid-19. She was born with a heart condition and had the first successful heart surgery of its kind when she was just twelve years old. She battled diabetes, COPD, and Atrial Flutter for years. I have known my mom was “sick” as far back as my memory goes. She would speak of the scar on her chest openly and joke with me that she had an animal heart. I thought I had been mentally preparing myself to say goodbye for so long and yet she’s stayed with us. But nothing prepared me for this. I envisioned my mom passing with her four children and husband surrounding her. That death was taken from her.
In the days leading up to her passing, we were told by her nurse at her long term care facility that she was having trouble breathing. Shortly after, we found out about the positive Covid-19 test. My mom called me three days in a row scared that she would die alone. She was the oldest of 6, married at 17 (for 53 years), and mother of 4. I was updated daily by her P.A. She didn’t have an appetite (except popsicles), her arms and legs were swelling and causing her so much pain, though she wasn’t requiring much oxygen and was a pleasant patient. She was starting to have panic attacks. She was not comfortable being alone, although I believe she made peace with it being her time, she couldn’t handle being by herself for the actual end. My sisters and I spoke to her multiple times a day and she sounded good and strong but also scared. I promised her she wouldn’t die alone, knowing full well it was possible I might not be able to keep that promise.
Monday at 4:00 I got a call from my moms P.A. Courtney. Her situation had drastically changed in the last 45 minutes. Her blood pressure and heart rate were critically low. She was in need of a medication to increase her blood pressure, but it required closer observation so she needed to head to the ICU. Courtney was calling me because my mom had signed a DNR upon arrival, and she was afraid that the time it took to move her to the ICU she may code. She was asking, if my mom were to code, should she respect her wishes and allow her to pass, or did I want to override that and have them do CPR or possibly intubate her? That was not my choice to make; I didn’t know what to do.
I called my sister on another phone and together we decided to respect her wishes. I cried and beg that they not leave her alone. I begged for Courtney to tell her that we were with her, and she was not alone. She assured me 10 people were in that room at that moment and she wouldn’t die alone. She told me “I will be with her.” I thanked her and began to openly sob. At that moment, I realized my niece (an RN) was at the hospital and asked if there was anyway she could maybe come by the door. She told me YES! I frantically called my niece begging her to go the 3rd floor to be there when her grandmother passed. In hindsight, that was not fair … that was a terrible situation I put her in. She got permission and went. When she got to my mom’s room, she called me and told me that they had begun to allow one person in for end of life visitation a few days prior. She told me to hurry up and they would let me in.
I arrived, shaking and confused of where to go. The woman checking people in at valet informed me there was no parking and seemed confused that I wasn’t there to drop someone off. I explained I got a call that my mom was nearing the end, and they told me I could come say goodbye. She told me to just leave my car wherever and go. When I walked in, a gentleman took my temperature, and handed me a mask and a wristband.
I have been to this hospital to visit my mom so many times in the last few months. It was incredibly eerie walking the quiet, empty halls only passing a few nurses/doctors, everyone in masks. A nurse stopped to ask if she could help me and when I asked her to point me in the right direction, she offered to walk me to the right spot. She stayed with me while we waited for my mom’s doctor to come into the hallway. She expressed her condolences for my situation several times and told me she would be thinking of us. The doctor came out with my niece and asked me to sit and talk. I was nervous and just wanted to see my mom. I was under the impression she had an hour or mere minutes. Her doctor spoke to me softly and calmed me. He asked about her situation leading up to this moment and agreed with my feelings regarding respecting my mom’s wishes.
Several people assisted me in putting on a gown, gloves, an N95 mask, surgical mask, and face shield. While getting physically prepared to enter the room, they were speaking to me explaining what to expect. When I entered the room, my mother was moaning but not able to talk. She appeared to be unable to settle down or relax. My niece stayed in the room while they gave my mother pain meds. We held her hands and told her some of our favorite moments with her. My niece had to go back to her floor to finish her shift (did I mention she’s a beast?). I spent the next 11 hours in the room with my mother, watching her heart rate slowly drop. Playing Elvis songs, mostly his gospels, and talking with her. Wearing all of the gear was incredibly scary and physically draining. It was worth being able to see my mom, but I began to feel another level of respect for everyone that is working in that environment.
The Traveling Nurse
In that time, I met her day nurse, who came with her husband from Tennessee to help our city. She came when she saw that we were overwhelmed, while she has been here she discovered she was pregnant and that her home in TN was damaged by a tornado. She told me this as she checked on my mother and on me. She spoke of her situation while explaining how difficult MY situation was. I didn’t catch her name in the craziness surrounding me, but I will never forget her kindness. She was so relatable and made me feel so comfortable in an incredibly uncomfortable situation.
After shift-change, a second nurse came in. She asked me if I needed anything and offered to stay in the room while I stepped out for a break. I didn’t need a break, but my cell phone that was playing music was losing battery. She asked another nurse to keep an eye on us while she went to find me a phone charger. She brought me a charger, a water, and told me to knock on the glass for anything. Somehow I caught her name (Jordan), and I vividly remember how she made me feel. She spoke to my mom as if she was ready for her to speak back. She called my mom beautiful and my mom actually smiled. My mother was lying there unable to move or speak, but she treated her as if she was her own mother, chatting with her about Elvis and telling my mom how her father always sang her “Love Me Tender” before bed.
While Jordan was out of the room, another nurse came in. I assisted her in changing my mom’s sheets and warming her up. She spent what felt like an hour carefully arranging my mom, her gown, and all of the bedding so that there weren’t any creases and she would be comfortable. She was meticulous in doing whatever she could to make sure my mom wasn’t in any pain. She had assumed I worked in the hospital, which I took as a compliment. I voiced my trepidation in going home after that night and what steps I needed to take to protect my children / husband. She told me that her children are staying with family and she is going home to an empty house because she doesn’t want to put them at risk. She instructed me on how to change clothes, shower twice, use a different rag for my face and body, and distance for the next week.
The Final Moments
As the hours passed I watched my mom’s respiratory rate and heart rate slowly drop on the monitor. I watched her body relax, played more Elvis, and talked and talked and talked to her. Every hour or so, Jordan would pop her head in and offer me a break, ask if I needed anything, or just offer some conversation. As it became obvious the end was getting very close, Jordan asked if I would like a Chaplain to come in. Yes! I cannot believe I hadn’t even thought of that. Brittany came in and prayed over my mom. She rubbed my back and continued to pray while I cried. As she finished we both said Amen, and my mom’s heart stopped. The monitor went off a second after we both said Amen. I looked at Brittany and asked “is that normal?” It was a surreal moment, as if my mom had been waiting to be prayed over.
Time to Leave
I broke down and Brittany stayed with me. I honestly don’t know how long I sat there. Hours maybe? I finally turned to Jordan and Brittany and said “I don’t know what to do next.” In normal circumstances, when my mother passed I would’ve expected family to be with me. There would have been someone else to take the lead. I didn’t know how long I should stay with my mom. Did they need me to leave? Who I should call? What was the protocol for all of the equipment I was wearing? Brittany the Chaplain kindly instructed me on how to safely disrobe. She walked me to the hallway and explained what my next steps are. She offered to sit with me as long as necessary and then slowly walked me to my car. While walking to my car, I did not see one other person in regular clothes. The few people that were around the normally busy lobby were all in scrubs or doctor coats. As I walked out puffy eyes and red faced behind my mask, every person I passed met my eyes. I know that they knew why I was there. I know I was not the first or last person they saw in the moments after losing a family member. Their warmth and sorrow for my position was palpable.
I am so blessed and grateful that I was with my mom in her final moments. We were some of the more fortunate ones in this situation. Weeks ago, mothers and fathers were dying without having a loved one near. I now know that even if you had a loved one pass and you weren’t able to be near them, they were not alone. These incredible doctors, nurses, RN’s and staff were treating these strangers as family and with them lovingly in their final moments.
As a community, there is an outpouring to support our healthcare heroes. I knew they were on the front lines and working long hours in awful situations. But now I truly understand. I was able to get a first person view into just how special these people are. They are working grueling hours, in masks and uncomfortable gear, taking care of the most vulnerable people. They are distancing from their family and loved ones so that they can be here for ours. For this, I will be forever grateful.