The End Was Only The Beginning
TIME TO GO
On that day in early June, the angel of death stood silently at the entrance to Room 9 in the Intensive Care Unit of Atlanta’s Northside Hospital. The
critical care staff moved up and down the long hallway grim-faced and
tight-lipped, certain of what was about to happen. They had seen it all
Tears flowed freely in the room. Dr. Burrell’s words — “She’s probably
already in the light and waiting for permission to go” — helped, but
nothing made things easier for Elisabeth and me.
Few words were spoken as the clock ticked slowly towards 5:00 p.m. Mary Alice, intubated and heavily sedated, wasn’t able to speak. But her hair was brushed and her nails were vivid red. The respirator pounded its unyielding drumbeat in a futile effort to sustain her life, and it was almost time for
the end of the earthly chapter.
We spent our final moments with Mary Alice — wife, mother, grandmother,friend, ally, advocate, lover, professional woman extraordinaire — stroking
her forehead and hands and letting her know she was surrounded by love. The medical team prepared for the final moments and walked us through
the pain and grief to follow. Lis and I were worried that Mary Alice might feel pain, but the medical staff assured us the morphine drip would keep
I was also concerned that Mary Alice might think she was suffocating; she was claustrophobic, and I didn’t want her to feel she couldn’t breathe. Again, her caretakers assured me would feel no discomfort at all.
In Room 9 with Lis and me as the clock struck five were Dr. Burrell, PennyDaugherty (Mary Alice’s friend and nurse navigator) and Jessica, our angelic ICU nurse. Once everything was in place, Jessica helped us prepare. Lis andI positioned ourselves beside Mary Alice, me holding her tight in my arms
on her right side while Lis did the same on the left. Through our tears, we said goodbye as the medical staff removed the ventilator and increased the morphine drip rate.
Mary Alice took her last breath at 5:13 p.m. on June 5, 2014. The medical
team left us alone with her as we spoke.
Once Lis and I finished our goodbyes we asked Jessica to come back in.
She and her assistant Miranda helped us finish removing the tubes. We
bathed Mary Alice with wipes and then dressed her in a tank top and her
favorite pajamas — green plaid. Our tasks complete, we authorized the
nurse to call the Cremation Society to come and pick her up. Lis and I took our leave so we wouldn’t have to see our loved one in a body bag.
The whole afternoon Lis and I were plagued by “what ifs?”... questions that stayed with us because, in the end, it actually wasn’t ovarian cancer that
took Mary Alice’s life. It was acute respiratory failure caused by a toxic
reaction to a drug meant to reduce irritation to her liver but instead
stiffened her lungs to the point they could no longer retain oxygen.
What if her oncologist had changed her chemo cocktail to one without the drug that proved fatal? What if the 2006 pharma trial had miraculously
cured her? In the final, and maddeningly ironic analysis, Mary Alice was
killed by a chemotherapy agent administered to save her from cancer.