Cheating Death One More Time

If Howard wanted to be the inconspicuous recipient of a blood transfusion, collapsing at the hospital entrance was not the way to do it. The medical staff crowded around him like a pack of vampires on a warm body. I could do little to help. He was already annoyed with himself and with them. I did not want to say or do anything to make matters worse. I stood back while they attended to him, wondering what the split in their attention was between fulfilling the Hippocratic Oath versus mitigating hospital liability.

He was taken to the emergency room, as opposed to the ambulatory care unit where he was to receive his transfusion. We were in for a long day. There is irony in coupling the word “emergency” with that particular unit in a hospital because there seems to be little urgency to the treatment received there. But on this day, the emergency room was bustling. On our way to the hospital, we had passed a serious looking accident, not half a mile from the medical center. If you’re going to have an accident, being close to a hospital is genius. By the time Howard was ensconced in a treatment room, the human wreckage had arrived at the hospital.

Still, they were living up to my expectations, at least as far as my husband was concerned. He was not a priority and we were mostly left alone for long periods of time. Ultimately, the medical staff wanted to admit him and keep him tucked away in a room at least overnight, thereby providing me with an opportunity to demonstrate that I could be trusted on the “no ambulances, no hospitals” pledge. He and I were a united front: no admission.

Hours—and endless frustration—later, he was placed in a private room in the ambulatory care unit and they were beginning preparations for his transfusion. Even as an outpatient, he was going to be there all night. The transfusion would take that long, not only because they were going to give him four units of blood, but because he had to be given saline infusions after each unit of blood. This would, of course, put a demand on his already overworked urinary track. Fortunately, there was a bathroom right outside his room. Unfortunately, he was hooked up to a monitor because of the earlier incident. In theory, that meant he would need to buzz an attendant every time he needed to go to the bathroom. In practice, I knew he would simply rip the sensors off, thereby setting off alarms, and struggle unassisted to the bathroom.

It didn’t take him long to prove me right. It was not only going to be a long night for Howard, but also for the ambulatory care unit staff. After helping him order some food, I made my escape. My presence all night would be of no help, and I was not keen to be an observer to the paces he was going to put the staff through. It had been morning when we made our way to the cancer clinic and it was now past sundown.

In a moment of stress induced practicality, it occurred to me that I should make a stop at Gretchen Minney’s house on the way home. She had some of my canning jars and I needed to collect them. I called to see if she was home. She was. I told her I would swing by to get the jars on my way home from the hospital. Hospital—the magic word. That was all I needed to say. By the time I reached her house, she had a plate of hors d’oeuvres and a bottle of champagne waiting for me, along with an open heart and a willing ear.

Every once in a while, a friend not only proves herself, but demonstrates her keen understanding of your precise needs. Even the best of friends do not often manage that, but this was one of those moments. It had taken me ten minutes or so to get from the hospital to her house, yet all was waiting for me when I arrived.

Awards are given for all manner of heroic acts, but never for an act like this. How would it be submitted? How could it be described? I couldn’t say that she had saved my life. Technically, she did not save my life that night. But I would argue that a glass of champagne, some nibbles, and the simple act of bearing witness to a story of crisis are highly underrated as life saving measures.

I was gravely worried and with good reason. When I brought my husband home the next morning, he went to bed immediately and slept most of the day. The following day, which happened to be the day before Thanksgiving, he was no better. In the past, transfusions had perked him up and brought color back to him. This transfusion had done neither.

That night, he was uncomfortable to the point of admitting it. His entire body was rebelling and in pain. Breathing was especially painful. He had been prescribed Ambien to help him sleep and oxycodone for pain, but had taken little of either. Now he asked me to bring him both. My husband, the stoic, was moaning and I found it unsettling. I couldn’t imagine how bad it had to be for him to be moaning. This was the man whose pain measurement was based on the level of pain provided by a gunshot wound. I gave him the requested medications, climbed into bed with him, and held him. After an hour, he felt no better and he looked scared.

I knew I needed to act and I knew whatever actions I took would be further demonstration—or the lack of it—that I could be trusted to follow his wishes. I asked if he wanted an ambulance. He was adamant that he did not. I had to honor that, but I also had to do something. I told him I was going to call Antonio. He fought against it, wanting no one to come, but it was either an ambulance or Antonio.

Antonio, the shaman to whom I had been apprenticed, was not only a shaman, but a nurse. He had urged me, over the last few months, to call him—night or day—if I needed his help with Howard. It was after 11:00 p.m. and I was ready to take him up on his offer. I called to find that he was still awake. I explained the situation and I think he must have been getting his clothes on, preparing to leave, before he hung up. I knew, from years of driving between my house and his, that it was a thirty-five minute drive. He arrived a good ten minutes earlier than it should have taken him. He had clearly ignored the posted speed limits all along the way.

I crept into Howard’s room to tell him that Antonio was with me. Howard was delirious and nearly incoherent. He muttered, “No, no. I’m asleep. I’m asleep,” thinking, in his confusion, that I had called an ambulance. I explained that it was Antonio, no one else, and that he had come to see if he could help.

I had never witnessed Antonio’s work as a nurse and was stunned by his ability to gain Howard’s compliance and trust with little more than a few well chosen, calm words. Well . . . that and summoning up the kind of energetic power few but those of us who practice shamanism can muster. He took Howard’s vitals. Blood pressure: 60/40. Pulse: forty beets per minute. Respirations: almost undetectable.

Antonio met me outside the room and told me it was unlikely Howard would make it through the night. In fact, he thought Howard would pass very soon. We sat, side by side, on the cedar chest at the foot of my bed in the master bedroom. And we waited. I had some Jameson’s I’d bought to make hot toddies with and I got each of us a slug of it. He might not have needed it, but I did. Years of treatment and months of declining health had skidded, abruptly, to a stop early Thanksgiving morning.

But after an hour, Howard was still among the living. Weak vitals, but still alive. Antonio went home, expecting that the next call from me would be the call to say that Howard had passed. He had no sooner left than the moaning began again. I called his cell and asked what to do. He suggested I give Howard another small bit of medication.

Sunrise found me exhausted and anxious . . . and my husband still alive. Thanksgiving Day. It was not clear to me if I should be grateful that Howard was still alive—my immediate instinct—or sorry he hadn’t passed during the night. And there was no way to know if he would make it through Thanksgiving Day.

What I did was so predictably Melanie-in-survival-mode that I saw it for what it was, even then. While Howard remained semi-conscious, at most, I made stuffing, baked the twenty-two pound turkey, and otherwise carried on as if there would be someone other than me to eat Thanksgiving dinner. And I gave thanks for everything good and true in the world.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall

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6 Responses to “Cheating Death One More Time”

  1. alunatunes Says:

    this on going story just amazes me Melanie. It is so, pardon the phrase, “real” – thank you thank you for sharing!

    • Melanie Mulhall Says:

      Tammy,

      I can’t think of a nicer bit of praise than “real.” Thanks for that. This is an interesting writing exercise for me. On most of my posts, I just get down whatever I am writing about, look it over and make minor words changes a couple of times, and get it out there. I want the posts to be real, not fictional versions of real events–though perception and memory are both subjective. Just getting it down and not tweaking it too much helps with keeping it real.

      Thank you for your ongoing support, my friend.

      Melanie

  2. Maria Weber Says:

    Hi Melanie,
    Another gripping segment. It’s hard for me to realize that you’ve been widowed only less than a year. Details are still fresh in your mind. Thank you (and Howard) for sharing this piece of your lives. I believe it will help many people. It’s fantastic that your friend came through with just what you needed that night. Fixing that turkey was probably the sanest thing you could have done. I wonder if Howard smelled it cooking and if that soothed him . . . or if he was even aware.

    • Melanie Mulhall Says:

      Maria,

      Yes, it has been less than a year. I do hope that someone else will read this and know that other pilgrims have walked this road ahead of them and have managed through it.

      Yes, Gretchen is wonderful. She was supportive of both of us. She’d lost her husband to brain cancer twenty years earlier and understood, very well.

      I doubt Howard smelled the turkey and, even if he had, it would not have registered as anything he wanted to eat. By this time, it was very difficult finding things he was willing to eat. But cooking the turkey kept me occupied and doing something so ordinary that it was grounding and provided a bit of stability.

      Thanks for your comment, Maria.

      Melanie

  3. Cheri Hoffer Says:

    Melanie,
    I cried through some of your post, but straightened, feeling triumphant for you when you got to cooking the turkey. Food is for the living and you stepped back from the edge where you were with Howard, if only for a bit, to maintain your sanity, to ground yourself.

    Will you be with friends for Thanksgiving this year? While it seems likely, please know that you are welcome to join my friends in the hills near Boulder. Just say the word.

    • Melanie Mulhall Says:

      Cheri,

      You put it very well. Focusing on the cooking was grounding and helped me step back from the edge.

      You know, I was just about ready to spend Thanksgiving by myself. A couple of old friends invited me to have Thanksgiving with their families, but it just didn’t feel like the year to be with someone else’s family. Then Cindy Morris–who will, no doubt, be referred to in one of the coming posts because of her incredible support of Howard and I–invited me to spend the day with her and that felt right. Howard loved Cindy. I count her as one of my closest friends. It is very odd for me to be the guest instead of the person cooking, but I will have a thing or two to contribute and it will be wonderful to be held in the bosom of friends.

      I am so touched by your offer. You are a thoughtful, good woman, Cheri.

      Melanie

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