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A wish ignored

What a do not resuscitate request means

On Oct. 18, likely about 5:30 a.m., my healthy 85-year-old curmudgeonly Dad set out on his usual 3-mile roundabout in South Amherst.

He wore his ratty sweats, layers of long-sleeved shirts, a reflective vest I had given him, a wool cap my mother made and big clunky boots. His usual garb. He was a devoted walker. Grumpy about life as he was, he was a serious scientist. I suspect after a lifetime of teaching organic chemistry to thousands of UMass-Amherst undergraduates, he had some curiosity about just how far and how long he could push his tall, skinny body.

He had a regimen, he would rise early, always before the sun was up, prepare a big bowl of oatmeal, bran, nuts and berries, put it in the microwave for his breakfast after his walk, fill the pitcher of bird seed to prepare for their breakfast, as well, upon his return. Layering up, but never too much, he would march out into the darkness of South Amherst to jump-start his bodily functions.

The last thing he always did before leaving the house was to put an old, unused wallet in the pocket of his sweatpants. The only thing this wallet contained was contact info should anything happen to him and a big piece of paper that said DNR (do not resuscitate) on it.

Growing up in my household, we were told if anything catastrophic happened to my parents, they were adamant about the DNR, more strident than anyone I have ever known about it. No tubes, no fluids, no equipment. This sentiment became more and more stressed as my parents aged, my mother became ill and now, with my Dad elderly and living alone. He did all the right and required things. His DNR, with all the explicit requests was clipped to the fridge, was in his regular wallet, was in his car, was filed with his doctors office, the hospital and all of us kids had a copy. No tomfoolery. If he died, that was it.

My Dad was a pure scientist. He was always collecting facts and data. There are papers all over his house of his calculations. He could tell you where we were as a family 33 years ago to the day. He kept notes on everything from the weather, exact expenses and the details of every trip he had ever taken. He was the kind of person who kept minutiae in his brain. He was fascinated with life, but he didn’t revere it, didn’t think humans have added much to the universe, especially of late, absorbed and disturbed with politics; you could have a lengthy conversation with him about any state senator, baseball, medieval history, literature, jazz musicians of the ’40s and walk away wondering what didn’t the guy know about.

Sitting by his bedside, at the hospice house, where I’d been told that he may not make it through the night — thinking back about the last 10 days events — I shouldn’t be here. Dad shouldn’t be here. If his true wishes were followed, he’d have been cremated by now and I’d be sitting on his back deck, looking out at the stars grateful he didn’t suffer.

But he did suffer, because we don’t have a universal way of acknowledging when someone has a DNR request, because the instinct of the people who found Dad on the side of the road after he fell and discovered without a pulse or heartbeat, was not to see if he had ID, to look for a sign or icon of his wishes. They were not successful in resuscitating him, so they did what most of us would do, called 911. The ambulance staff did not look for ID, but somewhere in the process of putting the paddles to his chest, getting him in the ambulance, racing to the hospital, plugging him into oxygen,and fluids, someone must have seen his wallet. His sweat pants were gone when I was finally called to the scene as his Health Care Proxy and his wallet was in the “patients belongings” bag. They knew his name by then; he’d been to the hospital before, (He lived in Amherst 50 years) had on record his DNR order there, but it was if no one saw it.

I do not tell this story to find fault with anyone’s actions. I tell the story because we have to find a meaningful way to educate about what a DNR request means and how to know if someone has one. Days, weeks and sometimes many additional years of suffering can be the result of ignoring or simply being unaware of this very important request. There must be a way to call attention to this wish of people who would prefer but to be left as is, rather than have their bodies dragged into the murky waters of tubes, fluids and hospitals.

I tell this story because sitting at my Dad’s hospice bed, listening to his beleaguered, dying breathing, I know he could have been spared this extra trauma if we could find a way to educate, understand and identifying a DNR request.

My father passed away on Oct. 29, comfortable, gently and kindly cared for by hospice staff at the Fisher Home in Amherst. There will be no services. Memorial gifts in Dr. John W. George’s honor can be made to the Hospice of the Fisher Home or the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts.

Becky George, the event and marketing coordinator for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, lives in Greenfield.

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