Family members who have witnessed or taken part in unsuccessful CPR when their relatives are at the end of life are almost never heard from. But I think we all can learn from Debbies story: she’s a first aider whose frail mother collapsed at home, and who asked for her mum not to have CPR.
Debbies story: I’m a trained first aider. My Mum had lived alone since Dad died. She had always been independent, but she had four chest infections in a row last winter so I was staying with her. The problems with her chest were getting her down. She told me she was fed up with life, so I asked for a nurse to come round to assess her. Anyway, she went to the toilet, and I felt she was gone too long. When I went to check, I found her collapsed.
Faced with that situation, instinct and training kicked in. I got her onto the floor, rang for an ambulance and started CPR.
I know I broke her ribs — I felt a horrible, sickening crunching as they snapped under my hands. It was nothing like the dummy we’d practised on.
The doctors in A&E told me it was common in elderly people, but they never teach you that on first aid courses. And it was all so undignified, squashed in her hallway, and me knowing all the time that if I revived her she would probably never forgive me.
I don’t know how long the ambulance took to arrive, but it felt like forever. I was glad to hand Mum over to the professionals and did my best to pull her pants back up and try to restore at least a little dignity to her. They applied the paddles, and got her heart beating. But I couldn’t tell the ambulance service that I wanted to let her go. That I knew my Mum. That I knew there was no way she would want to live the remainder of her life no longer capable of being independent.
She was unconscious but they got her stable enough to transport her to hospital. I left in my car at the same time but arrived at the hospital before them. When they rushed her into A&E, the ambulance-men told me that I’d given her the best possible chance of survival, but her heart had stopped again on the journey and they’d had to resuscitate her again.
The A&E staff were brilliant. But on the way there I’d had time to think. Mum had managed to plan her funeral — she’d even written down what she wanted to wear, what to place in her coffin and the exact service she wanted because she’d been so impressed with Dad’s funeral.
But we hadn’t thought about the actual dying. And nobody teaches you the words to say when you want the doctors to let somebody go. Not to resuscitate them if their heart stops again.
It was not an easy decision but I knew it was right. Your head is saying “let her go” but your gut is churning and you desperately don’t want her to die. You also do worry about what the doctors will think of you — will they think you don’t care? Will they try to persuade you to change your mind when it’s already the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make?
I could bear that the professionals might think badly of me. But I couldn’t bear that my Mum would hate me for keeping her alive without being fully restored to health and fitness and I just knew no doctor could do that. They agreed to make her comfortable, not to try resuscitating her again, and see how she fared through the night.
I was called back to the hospital at 4.30 the next morning as they thought the end was near. The doctors told me her body was shutting down. The decision to turn off the life support machines was easy, as was the decision to donate her corneas. If something good was going to come out of tragedy, that was a comfort. I held her hand as she passed away. But by the time I said the words I’d always wanted to say, my Mum was unconscious. I’ve been told that hearing is the last sense to go so I like to think she did hear.
No one wants their Mum to die. But who wants their Mum to suffer? I loved my Mum enough to try to save her. But I also loved her enough to let her go.
‘Debbie’ is not this person’s real name. But this is a real story, and these are ‘Debbie’s’ real words.
Debbies story is clear about howDebbie truly did put her Mum front and centre — despite her worry that the doctors might think she didn’t care. I admire Debbie’s bravery both in trying to save her mum and — even more difficult — in letting her mum go.
I wrote back to Debbie about how sorry I was, not only about what happened to her Mum, but also that she had to do all this by herself. Writing to me was the first time Debbie had shared her story and, although I reassured her, she was still — 2 years later — worrying that the ribs she had broken had contributed to her Mum’s death (they hadnt).
Maybe the biggest lesson, though, is that talking about all of this earlier could have helped. It may not have prevented the collapse, but it could have prevented the CPR, and all the medical interventions that happened.
Even more importantly, it might have given Debbie time to say “the words I’d always wanted to say”.
The big practical distinction to make is between cardiac arrests when the heart stops first, and natural dying. These are quite different things. Dr Dan Beckett has explained how cardiac arrests may (may!) have a reversible cause, while natural dying doesn’t.
In a cardiac arrest, the heart stops first. Quite often this follows a heart attack and problems with electricity in the heart. Defibrillation may sometimes be able to restart the heart.
In a natural death, the heart tends to stop last, as part of the natural process of dying. CPR is likely to be futile because the body is dying. It may even be harmful since it leads to an undignified death, and may prolong the dying process.
Debbies story remembers Debbie’s Mum. And it’s in honour of Debbie, who has told me: “If anyone else can benefit or learn from my story, at least something positive will come out of it”.