Dying Wishes

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In the front seat of the ambulance, I turned from comforting my 86-year-old father long enough to see a shooting star blaze across the sky. Some say it's an omen portending a loved one's death. I tried to convince myself that the comet was a good sign, that my feisty dad would be okay.

We were at a family barbeque in San Diego when he fell ill. Dad had travelled from New Mexico -- where he lived alone for years -- for a rare reunion with my three siblings and me. Until he suddenly doubled over in pain, he'd been enjoying himself. He devoured fresh sea bass, talked politics and complained about the state of medical care for seniors. Dad believed most doctors were more interested in ordering tests than an old man's well-being.

Earlier that weekend, he smirked at me across the dinner table. "I'm getting 'Do Not Resuscitate' tattooed here," he said, tapping his forehead. He'd often told me that if he ever had a serious medical event, he didn't want excessive treatment to prolong his life.

By the time the paramedics rolled my father into the ER, he was barely conscious.
The doctor who examined him said an aneurism in his stomach had ruptured. He asked if Dad had an Advance Directive. He did. But I didn't have a copy. Nor could I find one in Dad's wallet.

Each year, many seniors in our country wind up in similar situations. Without a copy of an Advance Directive to guide them in an emergency, medical staff are hesitant to make decisions that could lead to lawsuits. Too frequently, their patients' end-of-life wishes are ignored.


Fortunately, the ER doctor advised doing what my father wanted -- just keeping him comfortable. An hour later, surrounded by his family, he passed peacefully. No tests. No surgery. No lengthy hospital stay.

So maybe that shooting star was two omens. A sad one predicting my dad's death, but a good one for how he would leave this world -- with his dignity intact in a room filled with love.

With a Perspective, I'm Dorothy O'Donnell.
Dorothy O'Donnell lives in Marin and is writing a memoir about raising a child with mental illness.