Facing My Own Mortality

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Daisies in Water, photo care of Laurie Reichart
Daisies in Water, photo care of Laurie Reichart

Laurie Reichart has worked more than 25 years in the health field, and studied creative writing at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her forthcoming short story, “Pink Slippers,” is in the 2011 edition of Blood and Thunder: Muses on the art of medicine. She has contributed essays to various health organizations, and most of her writing has been on social issues in healthcare and emotional issues on death and dying. This excerpt from “Watering the Flowers” is republished with permission.

A time came when I had to face my own mortality. It was my fourth visit to the doctor in two weeks. The first visit was a routine exam and physical. It never occurred to me that I would be sent down the rugged road of testing, prodding, needles, scanning, and ultrasounds. On this particular visit I wasn’t led to the usual examining room. Instead, I was taken to a place that was elegantly decorated. The walls were golden with autumn decor. There were paintings of beautiful women throughout different eras. A large overstuffed couch was filled with ornate pillows. A few cherry wood tables held two small lamps. The lamps were the only source of light, replacing the usual fluorescent lighting in the ceiling. Across from the couch was an upholstered chair. The room was serene and calming, yet, I was nervous.

I thought their intentions were kind, but I felt I might be more comfortable in the exam room. At least there I knew what to expect. The nurse asked if she could get me anything to drink. I wanted to say “tequila,” but decided it might not be a good time for a joke. I didn’t know where to sit. Was the couch for patients? What I really wanted to do was lie on the floor, close my eyes, and enter a meditation that would take me away from here.

My doctor was a wonderful woman who always made me feel comfortable. If I had lain down on the floor, I don’t think she would have been shocked. She was the type of person who would sit right beside me. She was the one, after all, who had sent me on a 2-week journey to hell. There were the medications that made me nauseous, but promised results. The mortifying procedure that would end my pain and the growth of the mysterious mass. All of this followed by two weeks of waiting, not knowing, and mind-racing thoughts. I followed her directions, not because she was the MD, but because I trusted and loved her. She was my friend, my confidant, and mentor.

I sat cross-legged on the couch in that golden room. My hands turned ice-cold. My heart valves were working overtime as I felt my chest vibrate each time they opened and closed. I breathed deeply, pursing my lips against the exhalations.

My thoughts shot off to different places and moments. I calmed my head. I talked to God, looking ahead at the chair across from me as if he was sitting right there. I told him about my bucket list. I told him that I wanted to do everything on it. I told him about my children. Tears pooled in the corners of my eyes, and a tight ball formed in my throat.

The door opened and my doctor came in carrying a cup of herbal tea. She is smiling, I thought, this is good. She sat on the couch beside me, wrapping her legs under her. Immediately, we were in the thick of test results, numbers, procedures. The next step was another biopsy. She looked at me, waiting for a response. I had nothing to give her. I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t want to say: “I am okay with this.” I knew I wasn’t.

If my health was not going to improve, I was not afraid of dying. Medicine is to restore, to heal. Treatment should never be offered to prolong death. To me, that is a futile goal.

With medical treatment and various procedures, I was able to recover. If I had not been able to sustain my life to a qualitative state, I would have made the decision to stop all medical regimens. My family would have respected my decision not to be kept alive.

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