Making Every Moment Count
Dancing With the Stars
Helen's career started at twelve years old when she took a job at the meat packing plant. Her father passed away that year, leaving her immigrant mother with three young children, a grade school education and a strong foreign accent that precluded her from most employment.
Helen married, had a daughter and eventually divorced an abusive husband, leaving her a single mother working two jobs to support her child, her mother and her other sister.
She was in her sixties by the time she discovered a new hobby. She and her younger sister took up ballroom dancing where she could express her creativity. Together they toured internationally in dance competitions where she found true talent and used it.
Helen and her Daughter
One freezing cold day in January, the family was called to the hospital on behalf of Helen. Standing helplessly at her bedside gazing at her tiny body we could only hope she would regain consciousness. We were told she would not likely recognize us or return from wherever her mind had gone. At ninety-four her chances for recovery were slim.
She wrestled with the oxygen tubes, her arms thrashing against the bed-rails as she moaned in her sleep. Despite all attempts to rouse her, her electric blue eyes remained tightly closed. For the moment her fate resided in the hands of caregivers in whose care her existence was measured one moment at a time.
Helen and Louise
Pacing the quiet corridors of the hospital, it became clear that any material possessions Helen had gathered over ninety years suddenly became insignificant in the grand scheme of things. No bank account nor piece of jewelry, designer dress or item of furniture would ever be of use to her again.
At that moment, nothing else would be as important as spending time with her loved ones.
Helen took a job in the Armour meat packing plant in Fort Worth after her father passed away. As a single mother in the fifties, she continued to support her mother, sister and her own child. Her mother, an immigrant from Vienna, came to the United States in 1904 on a passenger ship from Germany after traveling across country following the death of her own father.
Helen worked at Swift Dairy and Poultry Company for thirty four years from 1941 to 1975. After retiring at age sixty-five, she took another job at Saint Joseph's Hospital as a bookkeeper.
In the seventies and eighties, she and her younger sister, Louise, took dance lessons at the Fred Astaire Studios in Fort Worth. Together, they traveled to Spain and other countries, dancing their way across the country competing in ballroom dance tournaments, taking home a range of trophies.
Back in the hospital room, the specialist arrived to evaluate Helen's future dietary needs considering her inability to swallow food on her own. After a ten minute examination, she left the room without talking to the family. Chasing her down to ask the critical question, the one we all dreaded, her answer was, yes, the hospital would be withdrawing any food given by mouth.
In those few moments, a stranger decided that Helen would never eat food again. We were instructed to decide if she should be intubated or given food intravenously and told it was likely she would aspirate any food given orally which meant inhale food into her lungs causing respiratory infection or choking. They suggested surgically inserting a feeding tube into her stomach. Without a living will, it was up to the family to make that decision for her.
Life and Death Decisions
We held a grim family conference in the hallway, speaking in hushed tones about what she would have wanted. The pessimistic declaration of the therapist and her ten-minute analysis would otherwise set the course of Helen’s existence. Would she want to have a feeding tube inserted at her age? There was no living will to advise us of her wishes. We had no clue as to her preferences, only our own conscience to guide our decision.
We decided that she would not have wanted her life to be prolonged artificially if there were no hope for recovery ahead and no quality of life remaining. We told the doctor not to force feed this body that could no longer sustain the functions of daily life on its own.
Have you ever had to make a life decision on behalf of a family member?
Reflecting on Lost Moments
When I thought about the countless hours squandered staring at a computer screen, on the telephone or commuting to another faceless workday, I saw my life in a different light. I wondered about the strangers with whom I had shared a chunk of my life if any would even remember my name these years later. I considered the times I’d lost my temper or let road rage overwhelm me in the insufferable city traffic of my daily commute to work.
I wondered if I could be forgiven for the wasted moments that I would now gladly pass along to my dear aunt if only it were possible. The many times she’d invited me for a visit when my career, travel or idle pastimes kept me away flashed as videos through my mind. I began to recall the few precious hours when we spent time together. There were so many things I should have asked, so many things about her life that would now and forever be lost.
Making It Count - Jack from The Titanic Movie
The hospital released her back to the nursing home where she had spent the previous two years after a stroke left her unable to talk or tend to her own needs. She was in the care of underpaid angels were to care for those in her condition.
The nursing home’s compassion policy would not allow Helen to fade away by starvation. They patiently set her upright in a wheelchair and giving her pureed food. Amazingly, she began to eat and drink again, surprising us with her determination to survive for an additional five months. Her death sentence was overturned giving us a chance to look into her beautiful eyes and feel her kiss on our hands.
Dancing with the Stars
The Last Moments
The members of Helen's family spent the day by her side as she lay curled in a fetal ball, not speaking. Her younger sister, eighty-five years old, held her hand, sang songs, and read poetry to her. The staff said she was in the final stages and it became clear as midnight approached. We waited nervously for the priest from a nearby church to arrive and bowed our heads in tears as he administered last rites. Eager to begin the ninety-minute drive home after a long day at the nursing home, we whispered our goodbyes on what would be the final moments we would ever spend with her on this earth. She waited until we were gone to pass quietly in the night ready to begin her new life on the other side.
Living Will and Last Wishes
This experience highlights the importance of having an Advanced Directive or Living Will stating the exact preferences of what you want to happen medically if you become critically ill. A living will states whether you wish to be kept alive by artificial means or whether you want to go naturally if there is no hope for a cure to your illness.
Most facilities require that a DNR or Do Not Resuscitate order be signed which gives caregivers instructions not to allow CPR or life saving measures if you become unresponsive.
A Last Will and Testament lists what you want to happen to your money, your pets, your savings account, photos, furniture, and the charities to which you want to donate your things.
No one wants to dwell on their own mortality but leaving these important questions in the hands of others might not be a good plan. Make your loved ones aware of your wishes by putting them in writing, then, make every living moment count.
© 2015 Peg Cole