A Taste of Hemlock


There is nothing wrong with having a living will and letting someone know what you want to do if you end up like Terry Schivo.  NOTE:  If something like this happens to me, pull the plug, get drunk, and donate my things to the society for wayward poodles. Seriously, I may be a most of the time vegetarian, but I don’t want to live like a vegetable. Who would?

This said, there is a difference between living life in a vegetative state, serious injuries, not being perfect, and just getting old.  A person can have dementia and still be important to their family.  And – terrible pain can be treated without the person experiencing it resorting to suicide.

In the late 1970s my grandmother Reidhead died, quietly, comfortably, and peacefully in the same bed where my grandfather Reidhead was born.  She was in her late 80’s at the time, and was ready to go Home.  Then again part of her had died with my grandfather, back in 1957.

A few years later, her last remaining sister, 96 year old Mabel, decided she wanted to spend Thanksgiving with Mama & Papa.     One morning she woke up and called my mother to tell her she was ready to go home.  She put on her fancy PJ’s and went back to bed, and closed her eyes.  Her eyes opened, she started laughing and cried, “Papa!” and was gone. She died in the same bed as her sister.

That’s the way a person should die.

It was one of those calls everyone dreads.

My beloved grandmother, Nana, was going downhill, fast.  If we wanted to be able to visit with her, we needed to make the 600 mile trip to her home, quickly.  My mother asked me to go with her, so we left the afternoon of the phone call.

My grandparents were very elderly.

My grandfather was dealing with the beginnings of dementia brought on by a series of small strokes that fried his short term memory. Other than that, at age 93 he was as healthy as a horse!

My grandmother on the other hand, was quite frail due to incredibly painful osteoporosis.  Seven years younger than my grandfather, her mind was as sharp as ever, or was it?  Nana was slurring her words, sleeping all day, incontinent, and extremely bellicose.  She could not walk the twenty-five feet from her bed to the kitchen table, let alone carry on a conversation.

The gerontologist suggested the family contact a specific home nursing company for someone to come out and help with my grandmother. Not long after her arrival my mother told me there was something she did not like about the woman.

Nana was having breakfast.  I sat down at the kitchen table, and visited with her as she attempted to eat.  Her hands were shaking so bad she could barely lift her tea cup.  The new nurse was very helpful – too helpful.  She treated my grandmother like a child, insisting she take the medication her physician prescribed.

Nana refused to take the medication.  She said it was doing things to her mind.  I had no authority, but I sat there watching her, as she twitched, her hands shaking. I asked if I could see the prescription bottle. The new nurse told me  I had no right to see the bottle.

The moment the new nurse left the kitchen my grandmother’s long time housekeeper handed me the bottle.  “I don’t like this stuff.   Your grandmother is right about it.”

I knew enough to know that Haldol to know there were serious problems with it.  The gerontologist had proscribed 3 doses, daily, with meals.  The total amount was 15 milligrams. My mother called a family friend who had a gerontology practice.
The phone conversation included the order to flush the blankety-blank you know what down the toilet and what else was the blankety-blank quack proscribing?

While I did as ordered, my mother reviewed the meds the housekeeper handed to her.

The newly hired nurse fumed.  My mother told her to sit down and shut up.   At the same time she told Nana that she was not to take any of that stuff, ever again.  As she read the list of medications, I could hear a bit of profanity spewing from the phone, and I was standing ten feet away from it.

The nurse changed tactics.  She quickly assisted my mother as they went through my grandmother’s medication, half of which was designed to sedate her. She had a slight a-fib problem, and was in quite a bit of pain because of her osteoporosis.  Our family friend suggested all she needed was her cardiac medication and some Advil.

By dinnertime Nana was much more lucid, opting not to go to bed early, but sit in her favorite chair, by Grandy, and watch one of their shows.  When I went to fix them their usual dessert they were holding hands.  The following morning, Nana slowly went to the bathroom, took a bath, dressed, and made her way to the kitchen, on her own.  By that evening, she was back to her old self, no senility, no dementia, and she was no longer slurring her words.

The following morning my mother and I were preparing to go out shopping.  The new nurse had yet to arrive.  Nana told my mother there was something she did not like about the woman, who kept talking to her about what it would be like to die and not be in pain.

There was no shopping trip that day, not for my mother.  She spent the day visiting with the nurse, who told her all about the Hemlock Society, and how fulfilling it was to see an elderly person helped to the “other side”.

We immediately realized we could not leave the woman alone with my grandparents.  My mother called in her siblings, briefed them on the situation, and the toxicity of the medications, and then told them about the nurse, who was immediately fired.

By the end of the week, my mother and I were ready to head home.  By that time Nana was keeping her regular beauty shop appointments, doing a little shopping, and going out to lunch on a daily basis, and trying to run everyone’s life.  She was even playing cards in the evening.

The evening before we left, Grandy and I watched Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress.  Grandy was having one of those rare, very lucid moments.  He talked about the neighbors who lived next to his parents, and how Dietrich, their niece, would come visit, and stay for weeks at a time.  He said she smoked very good cigars.  The following morning we walked down the lane while he looked for a hibiscus to take back to my grandmother to put by her breakfast plate, as he had done every day of the sixty-six years of their marriage.

It was the last time I was with Grandy.  Months later the gerontologist decided his dementia was becoming severe, and suggested Hospice be called in to deal with him.  He was still rather healthy.  After one of those magical drips he was dead.  Nana survived a few more years, but was never the same.  The osteoporosis from which she was suffering, was like bone cancer, turning her life into abject agony.  Once again Hospice came in and set up their little magical drip, and she was dead.

While one cannot accuse the gerontologist of working hand in glove with the Hemlock Society, the medication she proscribed for my grandparents made my mother and I suspicious.  We were to learn that the woman did indeed work with the Hemlock Society and specialized in “assisting” the elderly to “the other side” like someone would an unwanted elderly pet, who was constantly soiling the house.

I’ve had no other dealings with Hospice, other than to have been left with a very bad opinion of them.  Both of my grandparents were down to their last moments of life.  There was no reason to give them a medical drip to basically put them down the way you would do an animal.

The nurse who was assigned to them was more interested in terminating their lives rather than extending them.  Where she saw two old, less than perfect individuals, I saw my grandparents.  She may have thought there was little quality of life and they were not productive, but a few years earlier, at the age of 87, my grandfather negotiated $40 million land sale.  As long as he and my grandmother had one another, they were happy.

Is there any difference in terminating the life of an elderly individual than a late term abortion?

Isn’t that all that really matters, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?