I will never forget it. I answered the phone one June
morning in 2009. The voice on the phone said, If you want to see
your mother alive, you will come see her in the next few days.
A doctor was calling from Washington state and explained that my
mother, who was in her 60s, was in the final stages of chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease. He gave her literally days to
Two days later, I was on a plane from New York to Tacoma. I went
to see my mom, who was still in her apartment, since she said she
wanted to die at home. She rallied while I was there, and was
almost her normal self. A few days later, I went home, but asked
her doctor and home health agency to keep in close contact with
About a month later, her health took a downward spiral. Her
doctor was convinced she was definitely in the process of dying, so
we agreed to put her in a hospice facility, since she could not
receive hospice care in her own place. Mom was put on painkillers
to make her comfortable. I expected that she would be there for a
short time, then die peacefully.
That did not happen. Each time her grandchildren came to see her
or I called and talked with her, she rallied again. Staff were
amazed. Still, after six months, moms health did indeed take a turn
for the worse and the doctor again said her body had begun the
process of dying. My mother decided to go back home to Colorado to
die. With agency help, we found her a place and she took the train,
which is amazing given how ill she was.
Back in Denver, mom settled in and waited to die. But an odd and
wonderful thing happened she did not die. She eventually found a
doctor who adjusted her medications and oxygen and took her off of
all of the heavy pain meds. She got a new wheelchair and began to
venture out into the community. Before long, she was back doing
what she lovedvolunteering to advocate for people with
disabilities. Weeks after her return home, she traveled to
Washington DC to help fight for disability rights.
Terminal Illness Diagnoses Are Sometimes a Mistake
My mothers story illustrates how doctors can and do make
mistakes when they determine that someone is terminally ill. More
than seven years have passed since that morning in June when I was
first told my mom was dying. Happily, she is still alive. Her
health isnt the best, but she is still in her own place and still
reasonably active in the community.
What happened to my mom happens far more often then we realize.
Its one reason assisted-suicide laws are so dangerous. Eligibility
for assisted suicide typically depends on a doctors prediction
of death within six months. Distress over receiving that kind of
bad news could lead someone to make a hasty exit and, potentially,
miss good years of life.
Fortunately, my mother, who o...