Waiting outside a friend's ICU room, I watched the change of shift this past New Year's Eve. Watching the outgoing nurses exchange report with the oncoming shift, I overheard one nurse say, "I'll see you tomorrow" as she waved goodnight to her colleagues.
Like you, I've heard and given that same greeting a thousand times but yet, this night was different. Six hours earlier, my friend's children made the difficult decision to withdraw medical care from their mother after she had sustained major injuries in a tragic fall down 12 steps. Here I was, at her bedside, waiting with her family for her to take her last breath.
"I'll see you tomorrow."
Though I know we all say it, I was reminded again that night of how fleeting our health and, ultimately, our lives can be. My friend, let's call her Helen, though challenged for many years by chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, was an attentive and compliant patient, a loving mother and a doting grandmom. She enjoyed her casino trips and watching her beloved Philadelphia Phillies.
But it wasn't her high blood pressure or her diabetes that killed her. It was the brain injury she sustained in the early morning fall as her head took the brunt of the impact with a marble floor.
Fortunately, Helen had been very clear with her children about her care and her wishes regarding the withdrawal of that care. Knowing her grim prognosis, and despite their collective sadness and grief at suddenly losing their remaining parent, they honored her wishes. And they never left her side. They talked aloud, told stories, touched her and had quiet moments with her.
I listened and watched as several ICU nurses came into her room to express their admiration to her three children for making the most difficult decision you should ever have to make for someone you love. Those surgical trauma/critical care nurses may have seen families argue, fuss, deny, prolong, accuse, etc. so when one family moves swiftly, compassionately, and courageously in unison, I suspect it is a gift to the nurses too.
In honor of all of the patients like Helen, I encourage you to make 2014 the year you move forward on formalizing your healthcare decisions, including a healthcare power of attorney. It will be a thoughtful gift to those who love you.