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Much Too Late for Goodbyes

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More than once my husband begged to leave the hospital--or more accurately, he tried to escape it, his hospital gown flapping, his eyes wide and desperate as he shuffled to an elevator and frantically pushed the button. That was several weeks after he'd entered Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke's for detox--after he'd gone to a substance-abuse treatment center, then a small suburban hospital to "rest." It was when he returned to Rush that he started trying to escape in earnest, when he was getting sicker but still had some strength. He wanted to come home so badly he had to be put in the locked unit of the psych ward. But he never made it.

As soon as he stopped drinking his health got worse instead of better. His skin was dry and yellow, his eyes were bloodshot, his ankles swollen. He was too exhausted and confused to take part in the seminars at the treatment facility. He spent a couple of weeks at the suburban hospital, but I never met his doctor face-to-face. When I spoke to him on the phone, he was brusque and unhelpful. Once I asked him fearfully what would happen if my husband went into liver failure. The doctor almost snorted: "He's in liver failure." But he never told me what that meant. An older man who had a lot of experience with liver disease, he knew, I think, that the prognosis for my husband was not good. His reaction was to avoid me.

When my husband was sent back to Rush he went from one ward to another--three in all--and had several doctors and innumerable nurses. I had a hard time telling which doctor was "his." I really liked one of them. She was the one who told me that our request for a liver transplant had been turned down. But she clearly tried to soften the blow, reassuring me that it was still possible for my husband to recover. Then she was taken off the case.

As strange as it sounds and as it now seems, I watched my husband become speechless, incontinent, and bedridden and thought that he would get better. I waited for the upswing that would follow this long downswing. No doctor ever brought up the subject of death, let alone offered a prognosis.

Would it have made a difference if someone had? Maybe I would have brought my daughter with me instead of leaving her with a neighbor the night my husband suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and was put on life support, the night I rushed to the hospital after a stunned phone call from my brother-in-law: "Something's happened. You'd better come now." Maybe I could have taken my husband home for a visit at some point, even if it was just for a few hours, or given him pictures of our house to look at.

No one can truly be prepared for death. But I think most survivors want to believe that they did what they could to say good-bye. My husband's physical and mental deterioration was so great that perhaps nothing could have penetrated the wall of his suffering. My daughter and I weren't given the chance to try.

--Laura Molzahn

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