Every day, families settle issues of how one dies

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Eight years ago this week, my dad went into the hospital. Not a rare occurrence at that point in his life. He had problems with his heart. There had been surgeries and procedures. There had been risks and the great reward of modern medicine?#34;reasonably good health instead of being dead as he likely would have been if he had lived even 10 or 20 years earlier.

Believe me, all of us in the Haley family were enthusiastic about doctors and hospitals. Get one of my parents into West Sub or Oak Park Hospital or Loyola?#34;and we hit them all and more?#34;and my brothers and sisters became a tag team of loving concern, sincerely warming up the nurses, clearly connecting to doctors. We were advocates with soothing ways. The result, most often, was a good connection with the medical team and, for novices, a pretty fair understanding of medical issues. At base, too, was always the realization that each medical procedure had risk. Even the ones with minimal risk were risky.

And so it happened that in the middle of that March night, when I thought seriously about just staying in bed, I dragged on some clothes and headed to West Sub where my dad had already been in residence a couple of days. My mom, who lived downstairs in the two-flat, had had a call. My dad was feeling uncomfortable. Nothing serious, but the nurses thought we'd like to know.

The two of us sat in the dark talking about the Bulls and the newspaper and the family. We looked out the windows at the St. Kate's steeple as the first light came and reminisced about my folks having been married there 50 years before. It was easy and casual hospital duty. We'd both done it many times.

Our family friendly heart doctor arrived and studied the EKGs, or whatever the overnight monitoring was called. He told us the middle of the night discomfort was some sort of irregular heart beat. He decided, and we agreed, that he should install a pacemaker pronto. He could do it right there on the floor. In the scheme of all things medical, it was a little decision, easily settled.

If you've read this far, you know it didn't go well. If you've read this far, you know our family was about to face decisions that families make every day right here in Oak Park and River Forest. As I stood in the waiting area just a few feet from my dad's room I saw things unravel. Codes were called, good people rushed. And before I knew exactly what was happening, my dad was in bad shape with a breathing tube down his throat. My dad never wanted to be on a ventilator. Neither did my mom. The conversations had been open and clear. Dying is not the worst thing. Dying is natural.

The family gathered quickly. And while care was taken to make sure everyone in the family was ready, while we sat together with our doctor to hear the options, the decision was made that the tube would be pulled and that it would not be reinserted even if, as seemed likely, my dad had trouble breathing on his own.

And over parts of the next few days my dad was returned to us?#34;lucid and with his easy grace. He knew he was dying. We knew he was dying. And while we were grieving, we were celebrating, too. We celebrated his good life. We celebrated a love that had brought six kids into the world. And during one short window near the close, when my dad was fading in and out of awareness, we brought our then 12-year-old son up to say goodbye. These two were a pair, good friends. That there was time for goodbyes was one of the blessings of those last days.

In the final 24 hours of my dad's life the question was not whether he would soon die because plainly death was nearing. The question was how would he die? Discomfort was building. He had some visceral sense of walls closing in on him. And while we had passed beyond a time for talking, my dad was communicating with us clearly. He felt pain. He felt panic. And so more decisions were made, this time with a remarkable and generous medical staff together with his three sons who were together with him in the middle of his last night. Morphine. And more morphine. To move him beyond the pain and panic. To move him more quickly to his death.

It came about 3 a.m. The same time of day I had arrived at the hospital five days earlier. Those days were a great gift to him, to all of us.
     There is just one comparison to draw with the Terri Schiavo case in Florida. Medicine creates exceptionally complex decisions with its modern capacities.

Creating a path for choosing to die that is natural, humane, loving and whole must remain a right to be decided by someone other than Tom DeLay. Any so-called "culture of life" must also allow for dying.

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