22 hours ago
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Aunt Chris is ill. She does not have long to live. We said goodbye to her in her hospital room late Sunday evening and it was emotional. She's actually my husband's aunt. I am not her daughter. I am not her sister. I am only her niece by marriage. However, our paths crossed some eleven years ago or so and I've been impressed with her from the get-go.
I don't recall the proper name of the circumstances under which we first met, but it was that flesh eating bacteria that attacked Chris and required the amputation of her leg right up at the hip. I was dating my husband and he was on his way to visit his aunt in the University of Utah's Burn Center (open wounds, skin grafts) one Sunday afternoon when his car broke down. He called me for help, so I drove up to meet him at some gas station. He had his car towed to the shop and then we proceeded to visit Aunt Chris in the hospital (and meet his uncle and cousins).
FLESH EATING BACTERIA! She almost died from it. What a nightmare. AMPUTATION!!! The pain, the healing, the phantom pain from the missing leg, the wheelchair, the prosthetic, the walker, the colostomy, the tricky bathing...and yet, she pulled through! She had one grandchild at the time. Her family is her favorite thing. One time they came to visit us at our apartment and she hopped on one foot up 18 steps to reach us! She pressed on.
I haven't mentioned the Crohn's Disease. And did you know that with Crohn's Disease a common side effect, an auto-immune disease frequent buddy, is Rheumatoid Arthritis? But Chris pressed on, excitedly welcoming each grandchild and getting back to cooking in her kitchen and doing a little family history work on the side.
In addition to all of that, she often had sores that wouldn't heal for weeks or months. Boils. Pressure sores from being less mobile. I haven't been close with her so I'm not acquainted with her daily grief, the certain depression that cropped up, the frustrations of living with these side affects and limitations, but I'm certain they were there. Whenever I saw her, she was interacting with family and enjoying those blessings.
And last month? Cancer. She was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. The initial plan was to do chemo for twelve weeks in order to shrink the mass and then proceed with surgery. The first step for chemo was to install a port and a PICC line. That took place on Tuesday the 5th of January. The evening prior, she was able to gather with all her family for photographs (before she lost her hair). Her husband, her five children, and all eight grandchildren met together for some candid portraits so she would have pictures to look at while enduring cancer treatment. And then on Tuesday, she went to the hospital to have the port procedure. And she's been there ever since.
Nothing was really coming through her colostomy bag, so the doctor ordered a scan and learned that she had a perforated bowel and a blockage. Surgery was performed and a couple of sections of the cancerous colon were removed to allow her to eat once again. Chemo was delayed until recovery of the surgery. Eating did not last long. There's been "not much" coming through and some stuff coming back up. More blockages. She hasn't eaten for four or five days now. Did I mention she's also diabetic?!? Did I mention that once the surgeon saw all these problems, there would be no further treatment? Too sick for cancer treatment.
Throughout all of this misery, her leg has developed a sore--cellulitis. She's been treated with a couple of different IVF antibiotics. It's red. It's swollen. To reduce the swelling, they put her on Lasix. So here she is, needing to urinate frequently. She is so weakened from illness and the inability to eat. It's hard to walk four steps (or hop) to get to the toilet, so they bring the portable toilet to her. Two people help her stand, she leans on her walker using her one leg, and then she makes a quarter turn and sits on the commode.
There is no privacy during these moments. It's bad enough she has to vomit so much with guests in the room, but now she has to urinate with an audience too. Yes, we could leave the room, but she doesn't need/want us to and it all happens so frequently that we would be running in and out of that door constantly if we did. And this is what finally brings me to my title of Humble Servants.
Her husband is with her every moment except when he goes to his son's home three blocks away every third night or so to grab a shower. His daughter-in-law is doing his laundry. Her husband's sister, my amazing mother-in-law, has been there from Iowa for over two weeks, helping with her care in the hospital. Together, they pull her up, help her stand, and get her to the commode. Sometimes her son helps his dad do that. They wipe her. My mother-in-law sponge bathes her. She shampoos her hair and rubs her with lotion to help her feel better. Her son-in-law has also helped her to the toilet. There is no privacy or dignity left for this woman, but it was actually a beautiful and humbling thing for me to witness these grown men willing to give their wife, their mother, their mother-in-law the most basic care. Service is doing something for someone they cannot do for themselves. It is the most Christlike thing ever.
It would have been inappropriate for me to photograph some of these tender moments, but I remember her vomiting with her husband standing behind her holding her head and her cheek lovingly with his hand to support her while she spit into the little blue bag. I remember her husband and my mother-in-law each standing on one side of Aunt Chris as she balanced on her one foot and then started vomiting again. Even then, Chris would say, "Sorry guys, it smells so bad." I remember her husband rubbing her foot and peeling some of the dead skin off her leg which is left over from the swelling due to fluid retention.
That leads me right back to the first time I met them on a hot July day in the burn center. Her husband was waving a fly away from her remaining foot and peeling dry skin off it then. He was willing to do anything to help his wife. He was performing very lowly tasks that might comfort her or help her. Nothing is too low when you love someone. On Sunday he turned to me and said, "The first time I met you was in a hospital." Yep, and now in a different hospital, we've had to say goodbye. I really didn't know what to say, so I thanked her for being strong through all her illnesses--such an example. And she said, "I'm glad you married Ken." Lovely last words for my ears if you ask me. I walked out of there crying.
We don't know what all we'll be called upon to experience in this life, but I hope I can remember these examples and do likewise. I had never considered it before, but after this weekend in the hospital I know my mother-in-law would wipe my fanny if I needed it. And I would wipe hers. We are all human and while we're here it's important to serve one another. I hope I can do a better job of it.