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July 24, 2011

STEPHANIE SALTER: Thousands of things she would have missed

TERRE HAUTE — For several years, until she received an official information packet in the mail, my mother planned to donate her body to medical research. Indiana University changed her mind by including in the packet a form letter that also solicited money.

Mom was dumbfounded and not a little offended. Talk about ingratitude — and bad manners. “Forget it,” she said, and she did.

After that, however, right up to the last couple of weeks of her life, I kept reminding Mom that, in many ways, she already had donated her body to medical science. From her first cancer diagnosis in 1993, through dozens of surgeries, procedures, treatments and therapies, the field of medicine — and its practitioners — learned much from my mother’s flesh, blood, bones and organs.

Mom was a poster girl for early detection, diagnosis, treatment and disease management. Many of the illnesses she developed during the last two decades of her 81 years are the serious kind everyone fears. Any of them could have taken her out, but didn’t. All, except the final challenger, a stroke, were slowed down or cured. Mom was a walking, talking contradiction to people who “hate” doctors and expect nothing from health care professionals but mistakes and failure.

A Depression-era, lifelong Hoosier, Mom also was one tough hombre. No matter what sort of punch the fates and her DNA landed, she kept getting up from the canvas and resuming the fight. Ovarian cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, multiple skin cancers, atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, osteoporosis (and a broken back from it), elevated blood sugar, arthritis, cataracts.

“You name it, I’ve got it,” she often said, during pre-examination interviews. To her family and friends, she usually added, “I don’t know why God is keeping me alive.”

Maybe God has a special fondness for medical professionals. My mother deeply respected those who came her way and — 95 times out of 100 — that admiration and her willingness to cooperate in their plans for healing or treatment brought out the best in each of them. From a cardiac sonographer she might meet once, to the primary care physician who treated her as if she were aristocracy instead of a Medicare recipient with supplemental insurance, Mom continually inspired kindness, good humor, dedication and, often, awe in her health care team members.

My theory: Because Mom looked at each doctor, nurse, P.A., lab tech, therapist and pharmacist as an intensely unique individual, each responded to her as something more than another set of symptoms. She noticed their shoe and tie preferences, family photos on their desks and any new haircut. She asked about their kids and grandkids, their husbands’ employment woes, their efforts to take off weight or to finish their master’s degree.

She loved to make a doctor laugh and usually ended an appointment by demanding a hug, even if it meant elbowing her way down an office hall to catch the doc before he or she disappeared into another examination room. She brought lilacs each spring to the women who regularly drew her blood and offered good and plentiful marriage counseling to more than a few critical care nurses while they changed her IVs.

Most of the people who treated Mom after her June 15 stroke recognized her special steel. She worked hard in Union Hospital’s rehab unit, despite right-side paralysis, the loss of intelligible speech beyond a few words and the crystal clear understanding that her long-dreaded nightmare had come true, even with years of blood thinners. She told my sister and me she did not expect rehab to work, but she would try it for us, her grandkids and extended family.

A couple of infections that took hold during the long Fourth of July weekend halted rehab and put Mom back in the acute care wing of the hospital, where, for a short time, the goal was the customary “cure,” not “comfort.” As usual, the nurses who tended to her were stellar. One of them even maneuvered protocol and equipment so Mom could listen via fetal monitor to her great-granddaughter’s heartbeat, well ahead of the baby’s October due date.

Another nurse, Lisa Mize, pretty much represented the face of medical care in which Mom always believed. Just a few years into the profession, Lisa had left a job in electronics after scrimping and saving to go to nursing college. She told my sister and me that being a nurse is her “dream job,” a labor of love that she feels privileged to perform for strangers, day in and day out.

Lisa treated our mother as if she were related to her by blood, with remarkable tenderness and compassion. When it became evident to everyone who knew her well that this was one fight Mom should be spared, Lisa’s tears mingled with our own as we readied Mom to come home for comfort care.

I realize there are plenty of people who would look at Mom’s medical history and judge all the work not worth it. Likely, they are people who have enjoyed relatively good health and can’t imagine life on reduced terms. Mom would have given a limb for such luxurious standards.

None of this is to say my mother enjoyed being sick or that our family views the health care industry as all sweetness and light. There is astounding waste in America’s approach to medical care, especially during hospitalization. Between the insurance industry and many government regulations, it is a miracle that physicians, nurses and other health care professionals manage to find time and energy to heal anybody. Yet, despite the maddening obstacles, people like Lisa Mize, my mother’s primary care doc and the rest of her team DO manage to heal.

Medicine gave Mom time to see a thousand things she would have hated to miss — and to hear the beating heart of one treasure she would not see. I’d like to think that medicine is a little smarter and better because of their relationship.

Stephanie Salter may be emailed at

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