Final Moments of Grace

Michelle wasn’t quite a co-worker to me, nor was she really a friend, but maybe she was something in between. She did seem more significant than just someone who did my job at another dealership. After Mr. Hudson hired her for his new Toyota store, he asked me to drive to Columbia to serve as her mentor, since a Customer Service Manager was still an unusual position in the car business. Michelle and I hit it off during training, which wasn’t surprising, since everyone got along well with Michelle. She had the kind of sweet disposition that was both endearing and sincere. I knew immediately that she would do a remarkable job, one that she re-titled Client Relations, and she did. It wasn’t long before Mr. Hudson and the Toyota team leaned on her for almost everything.

Michelle was very young, very pretty and recently married. One could easily get the sense that her life was just beginning, and that it would be amazing. You could easily picture her staying at her job for years, even as she had children and continued life as a wife and mother. Her potential was limitless, both personally and professionally.She was a devout Christian, but she was inspiring to others as much for her unwavering niceness as for her unwavering faith.

Since I am telling you so much about her potential, you’ve probably already guessed that this is a tragic story and not an uplifting one. At about the same time that we all decided that we loved this girl, she revealed her breast cancer diagnosis. Since I was in a different city and not as close to her as the many Jim Hudson employees who surrounded her, I was not in the loop on her medical journey, but received random updates. I do know that it didn’t take long before I was hearing that she was too sick from the chemo and radiation to work full days. Her sporadic, part-time schedule soon was too much for her, and the dealership figured out a way to keep her job and her office waiting for her, despite reports of her continuously failing strength.

I would continue to hear bits and pieces of her battle, which always sounded to me like a medical nightmare. The strategy of her doctors was one of extreme, aggressive therapies, and in vain attempts to kill cancer in one part of her body, the medical team soon faced collateral damage in other parts, including a compromised immune system and a spiral of devastating side effects. I heard so many reports of her declining health that it was not a shock when the corporate HR Manager called to tell me that Michelle had passed away. Young, vibrant, sweet Michelle, newly married and blossoming in her new career, had died.

I’m not sure why I felt so sure in that moment that the treatments did more to kill her than the cancer itself. I am not a health care professional, I don’t have an interest in science and I have an aversion to doctors and hospitals. I just had a hunch that somewhere along the line, the medical practitioners created more suffering than they ameliorated. Perhaps she was always going to die, but I couldn’t help but think that they deprived her of some significant quality of life, especially at the end, when reports from her visitors detailed how brave she was despite the appalling physical decline.

I’m sure the seeds of these thoughts where germinating when I discovered a book called The Emperor of All Maladies, touted as a definitive biography of cancer. Despite the lengthy, science and history-filled 608 pages, I read it as voraciously as if it were a suspense novel. Each chapter confirmed my suspicions regarding the dangers of traditional cancer therapies, and the arrogance which caused the industry to hold on to treatments long after the research indicated that they were counter-intuitive and counter-productive. I was already distrusting of Western medicine prior to reading the book; afterwards, I was convinced that I would rather perish quickly than to suffer in the hands of doctors who obstinately adhered to these frightening and dubious paths.

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Knowing these experiences, you might now understand my fascination with the latest book to admit some flaws in our current healthcare protocol, entitled Being Mortal. In this shorter work (282 pages), Dr. Atul Gawande admits that there is a need for a perspective shift in the industry. I like how this reviewer articulates the book:

“We have come to medicalize aging, frailty, and death, treating them as if they were just one more clinical problem to overcome. However, it is not only medicine that is needed…but life – a life with meaning, a life as rich and full as possible under the circumstances. Being Mortal is not only wise and deeply moving, it is an essential and insightful book for our times, as one would expect from Atul Gawande, one of our finest physician writers.” – Oliver Sacks

I was so impressed with Gawande’s work, that I did something I’ve only done a few times in my life: complete the book, close it shut, consider it, and then re-open it to begin reading it again at page one. There is so much in the book which is significant and thoughtful, that I daresay it occured to me that everyone should be required to read it.

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The timing of stumbling upon this masterpiece is intriguing. I was helping my husband through his recovery from hip surgery, while managing the house and my job. This 6-week ordeal was not that difficult, but it was all-consuming, and it caused me some trepidation for the future. If I was this exhausted during a short-term, minor surgery recuperation, how I would fare as a caretaker for him if the issue was more serious? I developed new respect for family members who are caring for individuals with more oppressive health needs, especially when there might be financial struggles, as well. I doubted my own character in such circumstances.

This was my state as I stood in the Target book department, slightly tired and depressed and fully prepared to salve my melancholy with personal purchases. Suffice it to say, I was tossing stuff in the red cart with little regard for my long-lost budget. I went to the non-fiction section and started grabbing any hardback book that wasn’t focused on diet or cooking. I would read the first page, and if it grabbed me, I added it to the cart. My selection of Being Mortal stunned me even as I dropped it in. Surely, this depressing-looking book was ill-advised in my current state? It sat on my nightstand for 2 weeks before I opened it. Once I did, though, I was hooked. It is a testament to Gawande’s writing style and personal approach to an otherwise icky subject that I kept reading it, daily, until I finished, and began again.

The other item of note in the timing of this book discovery is my approaching 50th birthday next month. At this time in my life, it is inevitable that I will be soon facing these very real issues, either again with my sweet Kevin or with myself, or my aging parents. I feel grateful to have stumbled upon this masterpiece, as I now feel so much better, armed with some knowledge and perspective which will surely inform decisions affecting the quality of life for those I love.

Although the book speaks much of mortality as it pertains to the aging process, it also touches on decisions for those suffering from difficult ailments such as cancer.There is too much pressure on the healthcare consumer and their loved ones to make overwhelming decisions while mired in the emotions stirred up by the potential outcomes. Having a few helpful “focus questions” and some insight into the experiences of others can surely offer comfort in those stressful times.

I cannot say that either of these books would have helped or changed Michelle’s path, or that of her family. I attended her funeral in Columbia, where Mr. Hudson spoke of her heartwarming, gentle ways and steadfast faith. As recently as last year, one of her co-workers took me to her former office in the Toyota store and encouraged me to have a moment of silent remembrance of her there. We hugged, and cried, still painfully and acutely aware of the lost potential of her life.  In that moment I knew that I must aspire to her brand of kindness, her character in adversity, and finally, no matter what challenges may be in the future for me or my loved ones, that I am able to maintain what she had all along:grace.

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