Two weeks ago—right at this moment, Ellen was enduring the last few hours of her life. The massive doses of pain meds, delivered intravenously, were doing their best to allay some of her pain. She also had a handheld device that allowed her to administer another dose every 20 minutes.
Two weeks ago right now, she had been recently moved to the cancer floor at Sacred Heart hospital in Spokane. During the night prior, her pain meds had run out for 20 minutes, and by the time the nurse discovered it, she had suffered beyond belief. It had changed everything.
The plan had been for Ellen to get a new port for the dialysis put in on Friday morning, and once the doctors saw some progress with it, she’d undergo chemotherapy. The plan was for her to fight and rally—and have “the big talk” with her teenaged daughter on Sunday when Lil returned from a weekend school debate team trip. After the pain med “mishap,” we had a new plan. Ellen couldn’t bear the pain for another moment. Palliative care was the new plan.
As the sun began its descent in the horizon, a harpist came to play in her room. (The morning prior, upon hearing about the availability of this service, Ellen silently scoffed. I could see her rejecting the idea, even though she didn’t speak). But now, this next afternoon, I invited the harpist in. She had said that the music could help alleviate pain, and that was all I needed to hear.
The harpist was an older woman with deeply empathetic eyes. She explained that she would time the music to Ellen’s breaths, settled into a chair and began.
The music was exquisite. At times, Ellen would open her eyes, stare at the woman for several seconds, push her pain pump and drift off. (Later, I’d ask her if she liked the music. “Yeahhhhh,” she replied. “Were you surprised to see the harpist in your room?” I asked. She looked surprised. She had not remembered looking intently at her, just an hour prior.)
Ellen had not wanted any visitors, period—just her two sisters. But during those last few hours, as word spread among her colleagues and friends, a few decided to come and try to see her. At first, I tried to send them away. But my phone rang, and It needed to run down critical paperwork to Regan. I decided to let them in.
When I returned 10 minutes later, Ellen had awoken and conversed briefly with the two former colleagues. They—like everyone—had no idea that Ellen was dying.
They asked if she was going to the city of Spokane’s St. Patrick’s Day parade the next day. The answer was a most definite “no.” I could see she was fading again.
One of her friends then asked if she had anything she wanted him to say to her officemates. She delivered her answer, sharp and sarcastic even until the end. She waved her hand slowly, back and forth a few times—“bye bye.”
Ellen drifted off again, but was still in pain—even with all the massive doses of medicine.pain A nurse came in to check on things. I repeated the story about how her pain meds had run out earlier that morning, and stated that it simply couldn’t and wouldn’t happen again, Regan and I were going to be monitoring it and the minute a machine beeped, we’d be all over them.
I also asked about pushing her pain med pump for her every 20 minutes. Ellen would still moan in pain even when she appeared to be asleep. I asked: “What do you think?” She hesitated, and said she needed to check with the supervising nurse.
It was at that moment that I made a decision that I know was absolutely right. “You know what?” I said. “I don’t care what you say. I am pushing it every 20 minutes. I know Ellen would want that.”
Regan returned to the room shortly thereafter, and the night unfolded. We’d alerted our siblings, and several were on the way.
Eldest brother Tom arrived around 10:00 p.m. Regan and I debriefed him and passed the reins on for the night. She and I left at 11:15 p.m. to go to Ellen’s house to get some sleep.
We arrived home, and collapsed onto the couch with much-needed glasses of wine. After a bit, we grew concerned. No updates from Tom.
Regan texted him, and then called. It was 12:01 a.m. Tom answered immediately: “I think she’s gone. She’s not breathing.”
W.W.E.D. — “What would Ellen do?”
She’d hang on until her two younger sisters had reinforcements.
She’d wait until our eldest brother was there by her side.
She’d go out her way, on her terms.
(And she did.)