Bringing my son home to die

This image, taken seven months before he died, is probably my favorite. He was so handsome and his eyes were so mischievous. Also, he wasn’t making a goofy face.

It was 13 years ago today.

Thirteen years ago today, I was at my son’s apartment in Cary, getting ready to take him for chemo, when he looked up at me and said, “I’m ready for this to be over.”

He hated chemo, but he wanted to stay and see his nieces and nephew grow up.

He wanted to be around to crack inappropriate jokes, to eat my homemade bread, to go to the beach with his friends, to cook gourmet food, to enjoy late-night conversations with other night owls, to snuggle up to his cat, to help people get and stay sober, to build computers from spare parts.

We knew he had to have gained two pounds for there to be any hope the chemo was working. And we knew he had, at most, a year, because the doctors at Memorial Health System in Savannah had ignored his symptoms and refused to do a colonoscopy until he was vomiting fecal matter and weighed just 110 pounds (he was 6 feet tall).

I would never be ready for this to be over.

When we arrived at the clinic at Duke Medical Center, he stepped on the scale.

He had lost another pound.

The look on his face proved to me he wasn’t any more ready for this to be over than I was.

“I tried!” he said. “I really tried.”

That was it, then. There was nothing more we could do. His doctor, Herbert Hurwitz, sobbed as he told Mike, “You’re a good person, Mike. You don’t deserve this.”

It was so different from the doctor in Savannah, who had allowed my son to come perilously close to death before doing anything. And his dismissive attitude as he said, “We can do a little chemo, I guess, but you’ll have to get your affairs in order.”

That had been two years earlier, when he shrugged and gave up on Mike after allowing him to almost die three different times, first by not investigating what was wrong for months and months, the second time by not treating a stricture in Mike’s small intestine until he weighed just 104 pounds and then by not treating a life-threatening infection in his surgical incision. Had we not sought another opinion and paid for a consultation, he would have died in 2006. Dr. Hurwitz adopted Mike because he knew sending him back to Savannah was a death sentence. He fought for Mike’s life as hard as we did, and he gave us two more years with him.

But the damage had been done by that callous jerk in Savannah and his colleagues, who had written in my son’s medical record, “Patient needs a colonoscopy but can’t afford it.”

On this day, we learned my son’s life was to be measured in days or, if we were lucky, weeks.

My son would die because we as a society only value the lives of people who can pay.

He would die because insurance companies were too greedy to sell him a policy.

He would die because doctors were allowed to let him suffer.

He would die because we live in an anti-life culture populated by people who pretend to be “pro-life,” and “Christian,” but who have no idea of the meaning of either of those terms.

As we were leaving the clinic, he looked at me and said, “How much time do you think I have? Two weeks?”

“God, I hope it’s more than that,” I said.

It would not be. He would die two weeks later, with me by his side, holding his hand and telling him how proud I was that I got to be his mom.

I brought him home with me that day and called Hospice, grateful that I didn’t have to do this alone.

His best friend, James, and his now-ex-wife, Janet (he had to leave to get Medicaid), would come the next day and spend the next two weeks helping to care for him. We had a team of people who adored him ready to dedicate the coming days to making him comfortable and listening to his bad jokes and his deeply wise reflections on life and death.

Thirteen years ago today, I brought my son home to die from medical neglect and societal greed.

Since then, more than a half million Americans died from the same thing before this pandemic even started, and now, up to one-third of the deaths from COVID-19 are being attributed to people not being able to get care early on in the course of the disease.

I worked for the passage of the Affordable Care Act, only to watch it being perverted by insurance companies to their own benefit. While 45 million were uninsured when the ACA passed, we have at least that many now, and another 40 million or more who can’t afford to use their health insurance because of deductibles of thousands of dollars — the average is over $3,000 now. Tell the 141 million Americans who live in or near poverty they can just use their insurance when they can’t even pay a $400 surprise bill without borrowing money.

In other words, all the work I’ve done, alongside other advocates, for the last 13 years has done not one bit of good. While the estimate 13 years ago was that 45,000 people were dying from lack of access to care in this country, the estimate a year ago — before the pandemic began — was 68,000.

I am exhausted. I feel defeated. As my son said 13 years ago today, I am ready for this to end.

On this day 13 years ago, I brought my precious son home to die. We would have just two weeks left with him.

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