Category Archives: death and dying

Whose Dog Life Is It Anyway?

Following my mother’s stroke, she sometimes knew she was in a hospital in Albany.  Other times she thought she was in a library in Queens.  However, when asked by the Bollywood-handsome resident whether or not she wanted the feeding tube, she replied quite coherently, “Not if it’s not going to make me better.”

She had a DNR, and her wishes were clear. Medication that might prevent more clotting in her brain would probably cause her heart to go, and the meds for her heart would have brought more clots to her brain (as would doing nothing).  But even putting in the tube and waiting for nature to take its course, would have been prolonging her agony.  As my sister said, “If she can’t eat ice-cream, what’s the point?”

With dogs it’s different.

Meet Maizie, a Jack Russell-mix-rescue.  My better half took her in in 1999 when she was probably somewhere between two and four years old.  Do the math.  He was going to give her to a friend as a companion for her other dog, but when the two dogs met, Maizie attacked, and the friend got a nasty-Maizie bite while trying to break it up.  After that, my future husband knew he had something “special” on his hands.  When we began dating, and I brought up his possibly moving in, I had the feeling he was waiting for Maizie to die first, but oddly enough, she liked me, and there wasn’t a problem until that unfortunate incident in the elevator about which we never speak.

Maizie never had a 100% accident-in-the house-free record, but I was able to “un-paper train” her.  She got the idea that the apartment was not for peeing and was pretty good about it.  Then in July,  that changed. Suddenly, there were puddles of clear looking pee all over the apartment. She was waking up unconcerned in her own urine, and drinking water by the bucketful.

So off to the vet, who had long suspected Cushings, quite common in older dogs and treatable. We were warned about the expense involved. Medication requires expensive monitoring and over-medication could cause the dog to slip into Addison’s disease and die.  If the cortisol levels don’t go down enough, however, the symptoms will persist.  So there’s a protocol that you have to commit to.

Some people choose not to treat older dogs, not only because of the monitoring, but because lowering the cortisol may bring out other conditions like arthritis which high cortisol actually alleviates.

We discussed our options, including putting her down.  How long did she really have?  The end was inevitable.  Why wait till she was suffering?  Why put her through all the vet visits?  But were we being selfish?  Reacting only to the cost of treatment and not really thinking about her best interest?  We couldn’t live with the pee.  Or could we?  My husband probably could.  He was at work all day, while I mostly work from home.  Why do I hate her?  It’s not like I’m a neat freak.  Why draw the line at dog pee?  Was he thinking I was being mean, wanting to kill his dog?  She was his dog, before she was ours. Had I ever even liked Maizie?  Hadn’t I just married him for the health insurance to begin with?  Did we really even know each other? Could this marriage be saved?

Besides us, what about her? What the hell is the best interest of an animal?  Does a dog contemplate her mortality?   Would she be terrified of being put down because she knows what it is? Or would she be terrified because she’d read our anxiety and guilt, and because she knows that no good ever came from a vet visit?

We chose to treat.   We didn’t really want to take that anniversary trip to Italy anyway.  About three weeks in, her symptoms had mostly abated, but then she crashed. She could hardly move, wasn’t eating, had no sparkle in her eyes. We were ready to put her down, but the vet convinced us this was nothing more than a bump in the road, a medication management issue.  With a little “pred” and  a lower dose of the Cushings drug, she could go on for years.

Why was I suddenly remembering the last year of my 1973 Dodge Dart, and why was the vet suddenly reminding me of my old mechanic?

The clincher was Maizie herself.  She  rallied as soon as we got to the vets, a situation that probably caused her diminished cortisol to rise, and she really did seem to be saying, “Please don’t kill me.”

The second time she crashed, she was on the lower dose.  She stopped eating.  We couldn’t even give her the prednisone. By the time we brought her in, she needed  IV fluids and critical care.  Her electrolytes were messed up.  After her first night, the vet asked us to visit to see if we could coax her to eat.  We both left work, but we couldn’t get the normally voracious Maizie to try more than a few bites.  She still had to stay over till the next evening, but finally her appetite returned and her electrolytes were good.

A few thousand dollars since her diagnosis and she’s home, tapering off the pred.  They don’t want to withdraw it too quickly, lest she go into shock.   She’s back to peeing clear streams and drinking constantly.  Today, there was a minor victory when she finally figured out what the wee-wee pads were for. but it was probably just coincidence as she ignored them later.

Where do we go from here?  Possibly she’ll be ok once we taper her, at least for while.  The meds may have had the effect of screwing enough with the endocrine system to lower her cortisol for a while. However, given how rapidly her thirst and appetite have returned, we suspect that even without the pred she’ll continue to urinate in the house. I’m not talking about the occasional age-related accident by the way.  I’m talking about walking her every two hours and still seeing about eight indoor accidents a day.  I’m talking about the feeling of dread I now experience whenever I hear her lap up water. I’m talking about comically slipping on wet floors when we get up in the middle of the night.  I’m talking about … an unsustainable situation.

Excuse me, but there she goes again.

The vet says if the symptoms remain once she’s off the pred, we could try an even smaller dose of the meds.  The real experts, other dog owners who I’ve met on the forums, report that with this particular pill there’s no rhyme or reason. Sometimes big dogs do well on very little and tiny ones need a lot, and a more experienced vet might have started her on a really low dose, and worked up, which could have saved us thousands and not brought her to the brink of oblivion.  I’m terrified of seeing her crash again, but beyond that, we’re going broke.  The test they “need” before they can restart her will run upwards of $400 dollars. Then it’ll be around $100  for the new meds at the lower dose.  After that, in  another two weeks they’ll need  to recheck her levels.  The meds we have in the house are useless because they are capsules and not easy or safe to split.  We can’t even try going rogue and splitting them because without a very expensive scale that measures milligrams we can’t measure the dose, and even if we could we’d need another refill if it worked.

My husband suggested, “You work in Washington Heights, surely you know someone with a pharmacy scale and a soft-spot for dogs.”  He is considering bluntness telling the vet,  “We don’t need more tests. Just give us the script or the dog dies.”

In the end, she dies anyway.

Hindsight is perfect.  Surely, if we knew all this, we would have put her down weeks ago, maybe.

Update:  Just adding a quick link to this video about our relationship with our animal companions via  the late, great George Carlin.  “Same shit, different species.”

Tempus fugit or in search of affective-time

I may be losing my mind.  Or it may hormonal (I’ve been going through “the change” for about three years now).  It could also just be a normal part of aging about which I didn’t receive adequate warning.

I’m talking about “time.”  Time changes as you age.  It moves faster.  This is not a secret.  Since time immemorial, the old have warned the young not to waste their youth.  We are mortal, corporeal, and temporal. Tempus fugit. We’ve always known this, and yet…

Kitty Carlisle, who was old for a long time, famously said, “You know you’re getting older when every day seems like Monday.”  We don’t think enough about the ramifications that many of us exist in different time zones, even as we work and live together.

I am not so much asking where did the time go, as I am amazed by its acceleration.  In a normal day in my twenties or even thirties, I might get up, go running or do some other exercise, read a paper, have breakfast, all this and somehow be at work on time.  Then after work there would be socializing.  Sometimes even activities that extended into the next day.  Still the rent got paid — by which I mean checks were sent, without even using the “time saving” Internet, but written and mailed.  Other tasks were also taken care of.  Yet now, I start on an assignment and the day is gone.  It used to be that dull tasks felt like that they took forever.  Now every time I look at a clock, hours have passed no matter what I was doing, and I wonder, “Where did the time go?”

It feels more and more wrong.  Like I’m in an episode of Twilight Zone or on that island in Lost.   People with certain psychiatric conditions talk of “losing time,” but I can account for my time. It’s not really lost, just gone.  Maybe there’s always a generation gap because the old and the young are experiencing a completely different sense of time.  Maybe it’s a miracle we can even see each other.

Is any of this making sense?

I noticed early on that things were getting faster.  Even as a teenager it was clear to me that summers were much shorter than they used to be. At some point in my twenties, I recalled a party and realized it had happened, five years before, which was astonishing. But by the time I was thirty, there were people I hadn’t seen in ten years.  Now it’s twenty, thirty?  And they always show up in Facebook, and you either don’t remember them at all OR it’s like yesterday.

Time’s winged chariot is approaching quickly.  The issue is not that I (probably) have fewer tomorrows than yesterdays, it’s that the remaining tomorrows will feel shorter and shorter.  In the way that we experience time, childhood is not our first 12 years, it’s probably closer to half of how we feel time even if we live to be a hundred.  I’m going to coin a phrase here, I think, “affective time.” Affective time is not time on the clock.  It’s time as we experience it.

Affective time is why an infant panics when his mother is gone, but may attach to a babysitter within minutes.  Affective time is why you may remember how you spent your childhood waiting till you would be a “teenager” like your cool big brother four years your senior, and it felt like you were never, ever going to reach that goal.

The implications are this: At twenty you may look ahead and imagine another sixty years of activity.  You may think that if you are lucky, and the genes are good, life will be long.  It won’t be.  You’ll never have enough time. It’s almost irrelevant if you die at forty or eighty because after forty every time you blink, it’s your birthday.

So here’s my very unscientific imagining of an 80-year life span divided into affective time.

Age 0-3:  3 chronological years =  Time moves so slowly we can’t even measure it.  Everything feels like forever.  The good part is, you won’t remember most of it.  The bad part is whatever you experience will somehow stay with you and influence who you are for the rest of your life.

Age 3-13:    11 chronological years =   25 years in affective time

Age 14-24:  11 chronological years =   20 years in affective time

Age 25-35:  11 chronological years =   15 years in affective time

Age 36-46   11 chronological years =   10 years in affective time*

Age 47-57   11 chronological years =     5 years in affective time

Age 58-80   23 chronological years =     5 years in affective time.**

*Middle age is the point at which affective time begins to move more quickly than actual chronological time. Keep in mind that the above chart is an estimate. Affective time accelerates constantly, so between the chronological age of 36 – 40 affective time may still be slower than chronological time, but from 41- 46, it may begin to speed ahead of it.

**If you live past 80, it’ll be happening so fast, you’ll get motion sickness standing still.

Mortality is kind of a bitch.

Dora Stein, 1921-2011

Dora Stein could be described in many ways — a devoted wife to Jack for almost sixty years.  A mother of three.  A proud grandmother.   A “career woman.”  A teacher.  A volunteer.  But mostly, and all of her life, my mother was a fighter.

It may sound silly to think of a tiny woman, who probably never had a physical altercation as a fighter, but she was.

When she was a little girl she almost died when her thyroid became overactive and she had to have a large chunk of it removed.  It slowed her down enough to save her life, but not too much.  She still managed to skip a grade or two and got into Hunter College of the City University of New York — the Vassar of CUNY.  Her own mother didn’t see the point.  Why did a girl need to go to college?

But my mother fought that attitude.  And her whole life she was proud of being a “Hunter Girl.”

She majored in Math and it never to occured to her that “girls” weren’t supposed to be good in math.

When she met my father — no slouch in the intellect department either — she held her own.  He proposed on the first date.  She wisely neither said yes nor turned him down, but waited until she got to know him a little better.  They married and she became, before it was a children’s show, Dora the explorer — following him as he was transferred in the army, working as an accountant at a time when “girls” weren’t supposed to be accountants — even going to one job as “D. Feldman”.   When her ruse was discovered and she was told, “You’re not an accountant.  You’re a girl.”  My mother replied that she was a girl AND an accountant.

At a time when the movies and television offered the stereotypes of the perfect housewife or the lonely career woman, she chose to be a working mom, a phrase which didn’t even exist,  settling eventually on teaching as a career.  It didn’t occur to her to do otherwise.  It was pragmatic — she wanted a good life for her family and she wanted to work.  She didn’t need to wait until Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique to know there was more to life than ironing your husband’s shirts. You could get that done at the laundry.

It must hardly seem revolutionary to anyone under forty, to raise your daughters to believe that they could do anything and there were no limits imposed by gender — but at the time when she was raising her children — it was hardly a given.  She raised her daughters to excel and always with the idea that they would someday go to college, and that having a career was as important for her girls as it was for her son.

Dora always fought for her family and for what she thought was right.  In 1956, when a neighbor complained about my father’s having his business in their new house, Dora went to City Hall herself, to the office of Mayor Wagner, to get the certificate of occupancy changed, making it clear  and legal that the home could be used for a business.

When the Vietnam War was raging, my fiercely patriotic mother joined in the protests, going with her teenaged daughter Anita to Washington and taking me — at age 10 to the Moratorium in New York City.

Dora never stopped fighting.  She didn’t fight time in the way some do with plastic surgery or potions.  She kept herself busy.   My father complained that after she retired from teaching, she worked even longer hours as a volunteer for Hadassah, turning his old examination room into her office space, learning to use the computer to create newsletters and fliers.

She fought coronary artery disease for years.

She and Jack lost his fight with cancer, but even that didn’t defeat her.  She wanted to be independent, but accepted she couldn’t stay alone in her home and moved into assisted living, where she kept active.  She volunteered as a tutor with elementary school children.  She met sister Hunter girls, and enjoyed Yiddish club and Boggle and discussions on current events.

The last few months were hard for her.  She took a fall and fractured her pelvis, but she fought her way back in physical therapy even though it wasn’t easy for her.  She was determined to remain independent.  To stay out of a nursing home.   Her only real fear was losing her mental agility, which she never did.  She was still aware of the world around her, keeping up on current events. One of her hospital stays coincided with the President’s speech on health care, and we watched it together on the little set in her hospital room.

The last time I visited her in her apartment, she was showing Craig and me old photographs and the book about the Spatts — she was as proud to be a Spatt as she was to be a Feldman or a Stein, and still talked about working for her very successful uncle Sam Spatt what it meant to her that he believed in her brain.

Even, after her stroke — she was fighting.  She made her wishes clear. Like Jack, her humor could be laced with irony.  When Anita told her that it was ok to stop fighting, that the fight was over, Dora looked at her and asked, “Did I win?”

She came from a crowded railroad flat in depression-era Williamsburg and went to college, became an accountant, a teacher, a mother, a wife, a grandmother, and a volunteer.  She traveled to Israel and Europe and even Alaska.  She saw Paris and the Grand Canyon.  She saw all of her children graduate college and go on to graduate degrees, one of her grandchildren become a lawyer and all of them get into good colleges. She sustained a marriage of almost sixty years.  She had a good life and died with her family at her bedside. Yeah, Dora. I’d say you won.

Live Blogging — My Mother’s Death Bed — Part II

13:15, 24 March 2011 — My mother’s body continues to shrink and contract into itself.  Her breathing is shallower than it was.  I think she’s fighting less.  The gurgling sound is still there, though less loud than before, there is simple less fluid left within her or maybe the sound which had seemed horrible at first, is now something I’ve adjusted to.  (It doesn’t seem to bother her.  I think she is beyond feeling bothered by anything.)

Death is a teacher.  The handsome young resident whom I referred to as Doc Bollywood in a previous blog, seems to have learned something and matured in the past couple of days.  He just popped in and asked how she was and seems to have accepted that she is dying and he can’t do anything about it and nobody expects or wants him to.  He’s gone from arrogance to compassion.

The bed opened at the hospice, but the family decided that moving her made no sense at this point, though a hospice might approve a higher dose of morphine which could possibly speed things along, but the dose she’s at seems to be sufficient to keep her from suffering, so speeding things up isn’t important.

Not having monitors, we can watch the process and speculate — count her breaths, debate whether or not they seem more shallow.  They are certainly quieter with less heaving of the body, less struggle.  Like labor, it’s probably best to let it happen on its own time.  It’s humbling.  Even those of us with medical knowledge, can’t know exactly what will happen when.

I’ve turned the music back on and just swabbed her lips and mouth.  I may close my eyes for a bit.

Live Blogging — My Mother’s Death Bed

It’s been many hours since she last spoke, but her breathing is steady, loud and labored.  My sister and are sitting in a shit-smelly room in the Albany Medical Center, 5th floor, neurology unit.  My sister is reading her kindle by the light of the patient’s bathroom.  I am writing this backlit by my mac.  The music is something Bach-like via Pandora.  It’s not exactly a softly lit, pastel colored hospice room.  There was no room at the hospice, but at least they got my mother out of the “stroke room” where an eager neurology resident made idiotic statements about an 89 year old woman with advanced CHF and coronary artery disease making “a full recovery” in 6-12 months.

When confronted with the information that she’d had a heart attack as well as a storke and cardiology had told us they couldn’t treat the blockages because of the stroke risk,  Doc Bollywood didn’t blink.  He just said, “Well, that was cardiology. I’m talking from a neurological standpoint.”
To which my brother-in-law replied, “Are you saying she can live without a heart? Who do you think she is, the Tinman?”

That actor had it wrong.  Comedy is easy; dying is hard.

Physical therapy also stopped by earlier. We sat  astounded.  “I guess she’s tired.  We’ll come back later.”

Yeah, tired.  She’s just resting.

Not everyone who works in a hospital is crazy.  Only the doctors and the physical therapists. The nurses get it.  Comfort care when nothing else can be done.

My mother hasn’t said anything in the last six hours or so, and hasn’t said anything we could really understand since yesterday. — though there was a moment earlier  today when I thought she understood me perfectly and I imagined I understood her grunted, garbled reply.  I was telling her how great Jack — her husband, my father was and how much he loved her, how I still felt his presence, and the caring never dies.

She looked at me, and mumbled something, which I imagined was, ” He was a great husband and father.”

I agreed.

Now my sister and I just sit in a dark room and wait.  My mother gasps for every breath.  She was gripping our hands hours ago — holding on for dear life.  Holding on to dear life. But that’s stopped.  Her knees are bent up, the way we remember our father’s being.

On the phone to my friend, a nurse practioner in New York, my friend overheard the 9 PM announcement telling all visitors to leave.

“That doesn’t apply to you,” she said.

“I know,” I told her.

They finally gave her morphine.  A tiny bit.  My sister was worried.  My mother once had a bad reaction to it.  It was after a fall.  She was in pain, but the drug made her paranoid, hostile.  “I don’t want her to go out that way,” my sister said.

But finally my sister agreed it was time.

1 miligram to start.  It’s already quieted the breathing.

We’re staying the night.  Maybe in shifts.  I used to work a night shift in a hospital.  That was years ago, psyche, not medicine, but still it seems familiar to be here and odd, watching the woman who gave birth to me, contracting into herself, becoming smaller, smoother, more fetal.

Her strangely unwrinkled face.  Dying has a beauty too. It is as elemental, fundamental as birth, but not celebrated.  Still, there’s nothing tragic here.  We are not meant to be too long lasting.  None of us gets more much more than a century, and no one gets out alive.

The morphine is helping.