Surviving to live another day

It started innocently enough: I was complaining about being short of breath at a dinner party. Several physicians were at the table; one suggested that it might be possible to increase lung capacity by doing exercises with a spirometer. “I’m not a pulmonologist,” he said, “so I don’t know; it’s just a thought.”

Incentive_spirometer

The thought was planted. I fired off an email to my primary care physician (we love Kaiser Permanente) asking if she knew of such a thing, and/or might refer me to someone to give it a try. She replied with a request that I come into the office so she could evaluate me. Well, grump, grump; all I wanted was a quick fix, but anyway. It takes all of about 10 minutes to get to the Kaiser Medical Center. I arrived for an 11 AM appointment.

The good Dr. Tang patiently explained that she did not prescribe via email. And because it had been 2 or 3 years since we last examined the heart/lung situation she would like to do another work-up, to see about this shortness of breath business. She went very lightly on the issue of my being 83 years old for heavens sakes, although she did mention she had 60-ish patients in worse shape than I. (This is a compliment, coming from one’s physician whom one reminds of her mother, although I was still looking for some magic way to walk uphill without having to stop and catch my breath.)

She then ordered a zillion blood tests, an EKG and a chest X-ray. Still grumping a little, I set out for all these, vowing that if even the smallest of lines appeared I would just come do it all another day. It took me roughly 3 minutes to get in for the EKG, less for the X-ray, and when I got down one more floor to the lab and pulled ticket #372 the automated voice was already saying “Now serving #372 at Station #4.” After dutifully following all these instructions, I went home to take a nap.

Within an hour, a voice mail message arrived from my doctor. “Your tests are fine, I don’t want to alarm you. But I’d like for you to come back in right away. Just tell the front desk you’re here.” Alarmed, I set out for the Medical Center once again. Lung cancer. Definitely. A spot on the lung showed up on the X-ray, and I will definitely die of lunch cancer in the immediate future. fear

Fortunately, the 10-minute drive didn’t allow too much time to contemplate my impending demise. “No, your X-ray is fine!,” she said. “Your lungs are fine! It’s just this one test that came back pretty high. It’s a screening test for possible blood clot. These tests are set very high because we don’t want to miss anything. Still, I want to be sure there’s no clot there that could indicate a pulmonary embolism causing your shortness of breath.” OK, I prefer not to have clots floating around in my bloodstream.

So does Dr. Tang. Whereupon she ordered a CT scan – which meant walking uphill a block to the hospital where they have those fancy machines (and radiologists to read what the machines report.) “Once you’re done,” she said, “come back to the office and as soon as we have the results we can talk about them.” I set out on the brief uphill walk. Pulmonary embolism. Definitely. Isn’t that what did in my mother at age 70? Embolism, aneurism, something blood-clotty. I’ll probably die of pulmonary embolism before I get back down this hill.Grim reaper

It is now close enough to closing time that most Kaiser people are closing up. But the CT scan people wait for me, hook me up to the dye thing and run me back and forth through the machine. I walk back downhill, mildly optimistic because nobody gasped while I was getting dressed in the cubicle several feet from the scan people. With nobody now at the receptionist desk, I walk into the nursing/examining room area and tell a smiling nurse that I’ll be outside if Dr. Tang needs me. And sure enough, in another 5 minutes – not enough time to consider calling the crematorium – she comes bursting through the door saying she’s so glad I waited.

“As I said, these screens are set very high so that we don’t miss anything,” she begins. “In your case, there was nothing to miss. It was just a false positive.” I exhale. We talk briefly about how I might increase my exercise regimen if possible – which might even address the shortness of breath issue; I concede that I am, indeed, 83.

On the way home, no longer planning to die in the immediate future, I count the cost: six hours, several hundred dollars co-pay. And I give thanks for our Kaiser membership, modern medical technology and my good doctor.

happiness

 

 

Death, Dying & the Grey Zone

clouds

Death-and-dying usually goes with I-don’t-want-to-talk about-it.

Katy Butler wants us to talk about it. She worries, though, about the culture of death-denial, and about the lack of language when we do try to talk. How, for instance, do you say “I don’t want any more surgeries,” without its sounding like “I’m giving up”? Or how do you say “She doesn’t want that treatment” without its seeming you don’t want to keep Mom around? Especially when you know what Mom wants, but the doctors don’t?

Butler, author of the acclaimed 2013 memoir of her parents’ dying years Knocking on Heaven’s Door, spoke at a recent meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area Network for End-of-Life Care. Network members – physicians, teachers, counselors and individuals associated with a wide variety of end-of-life organizations – were clearly in tune with the message: death comes, but few acknowledge or prepare for it. It’s that vast majority, those who don’t want to talk about it, who concern Butler and her audience, including this writer.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door details, in graceful prose, how Butler’s highly educated, physically active, devoted parents managed to get caught up in the brutal reality of dying in the U.S. Her father, a decorated veteran of World War II, suffered years of gradual descent, including having a pacemaker put in when that was mainly a cruel prolongation of suffering; her mother suffered in parallel but very different ways as his caregiver. It is all, Butler fervently believes, unnecessary suffering. She quotes her father as he declined:

“I don’t know who I am any more.” Another year or so later: “I’m not going to get better.” And still later, “I’m living too long.”

Butler speaks of this in terms of “the Grey Zone.” Whereas most of us want simple, black-and-white answers – “This pill will fix everything;” “you can expect to live another four to six months” – in truth, the time before dying is the Grey Zone. And whereas the Grey Zone used to be short and swift, today – thanks to modern medicine and technology – it is forever expanding.

ER

Everyone will enter the Grey Zone sooner or later. You, reader of these words, and I, writer. You may ski into a tree, or get hit by a truck tomorrow, causing your Grey Zone to be little more than a blur; I could have a major stroke or aneurism and be at the crematorium tomorrow. But in all probability, our Grey Zones will come in bits and pieces, and will extend for many months or years. They are likely to include a few hospital stays for broken bones or debilitating illnesses, chemotherapy for cancer, possible time on a ventilator, multiple medications with occasional unpleasant side effects, outpatient and inpatient experiences with doctors we have never seen before and encounters with medical technology yet to come.

Butler advocates shifting our Grey Zones away from the relentless need to prolong life at all costs to the consideration of what really makes life worth living. We would do well, she says, to be aware of when “that space between active living and dying” should shift from Cure to Care: to easing our way from good life into good death.

Butler’s understanding of these issues come from witnessing her father’s long, anguished journey through a Grey Zone of many years and her mother’s steadfast refusal to allow a similar prolonged struggle to mark the end of her own life.

Quite apart from the expanding battles to legalize medically hastened dying, the need to acknowledge the Grey Zone is equally urgent. Most of us would opt to shorten that space between active living and dying, or at the very least to move gracefully from good life into good death.

It can happen, but not without paying attention. Reading Butler’s book, with an eye to how you would like to knock on heaven’s door yourself, is a good way to start.

Because looking realistically ahead makes infinitely more sense than zoning out.

Literature, longevity & Mavis Gallant

Literature, longevity & Mavis Gallant

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

I’m in mourning for Mavis Gallant.

You don’t remember Mavis Gallant? If you’re older than 14, you shared a century with her characters. You would have passed them on the streets of Manhattan, or Montreal, or Paris. They were people you recognized… even if you might not have stopped to talk with them. Where you really got to know them was in the pages of The New Yorker, which published 116 of her stories over a span of 40 years.

Mavis Gallant died recently at the entirely respectable age of 91. She produced sharp, beautifully crafted and highly readable short stories for more than half of those years. Collections of her stories were published in 1956 (The Other Paris), 2009 (The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories), and a dozen more collections appeared in the years in between — it boggles the short story writer’s mind.

And here’s the rub for me: In addition to the mourning, there is envy, admiration and — to be honest — a dash of literary despair. On the one hand is the shimmering example of a writer — a woman writer at that! — still writing great stories well past the age of, ahem, this octogenarian writer. And on the other is the sheer heft of her oeuvre. One volume of collected stories alone ran to 900 pages. We are not talking pages of tripe.

Mavis Gallant understood the abandoned and deceived; her own mother deposited her at a boarding school when she was four, saying, “I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” She also understood the displaced, having left her Canadian home for France, briefly wandering elsewhere in the post-World War II years when displacement was a fact of life for much of Europe and Asia. As a woman who defined the phrase “living by one’s wits,” she turned those wits to short fiction in a singular way. She also wrote novels and essays, critically acclaimed nonfiction.

But here is another rub: On top of the lack of maternal love and affection, Gallant endured other unimaginable emotional assaults and upheavals, realities that underlie her fiction. As a girl of 10, she was lied to about her father — she waited two years for him to reappear because nobody told her he had died. She was briefly and unhappily married, and heart-breakingly betrayed by her literary agent, who pocketed the money from the first New Yorker stories while Gallant struggled with hunger and despair in Spain and France. Gallant took it all in, survived and turned her life to short fiction, to the benefit of us all.

The rubs boil down to this: Suppose you’re a writer with a plain old happy childhood? You’ve already watched with envy — sometimes admiration and way more than a dash of despair — the flood of memoirs documenting addiction, abuse and aberrations of every conceivable kind, most of which inhabit bestseller lists for months. And here are the obituaries for one hugely admired short story writer, with the news that she too has a personal depth of Shakespearean tragedy to mine. Bless her battered heart.

At least she shared it all with us, in those dozens and dozens of marvelous stories. And kept at it until the end of her 91 eventful years.

Rest in peace, Mavis.