Today marks six months since George Olson, my partner of eleven years, passed away. I think it's finally time that I post this.
In June 2004, George went to the hospital for a pulmonary test due to being short of breath. As a result of a lab mixup in the test, the doctor admitted him immediately. While sitting in a hospital bed lamenting how stupid it was being held overnight for observation, his heart began to race and the nurses all rushed in. These periods of ventricular tachycardia combined with the fluid in his lungs led to a diagnosis of congestive heart failure and a hospital stay of 9 days.
George received an ICD, an internal cardiac defibrillator that sat under the skin just below his left shoulder, during that hospital stay. He was released and went back to living a pretty normal life. The ICD never once fired. But over time, he began to get weaker and weaker, having to cut back on the shopping and county fairs we loved the next year, and skip them altogether in 2006. We went to Vermont for our tenth anniversary, and he struggled through the Champlain Valley Fair and a shopping trip down Church Street, capped by the discovery of a nice Irish restaurant we both loved, by resting at every bench he could find.
By the time the holidays rolled around, he wasn't leaving our second-floor apartment much. When we did visit my parents, he struggled to get up and down the stairs, and just spent most of his time in bed. Finally, in January 2007, during a routine follow-up at the cardiologist's office, he was rushed to the hospital.
After a couple of weeks, they stabilized George and sent him home. By now, though, he was too weak to make it up and down the stairs. I managed to get him upstairs, but he was bed-bound. The visiting nurses they'd assigned him agreed he should be on the heart transplant list. George would have none of it. "I'm not living in the hospital for months while they find me a heart and then taking anti-rejection drugs for the rest of my life," he said. But three days later, when a new visiting nurse came, she found George sprawled out on the hallway floor, having fallen on his way to the bathroom and being too weak to crawl to the phone. EMS came and took him out in a chair, because our apartment was too full of our stuff for them to use a stretcher.
He went into the hospital again and was released in five days. Once again, he was too weak to get up the stairs, but we got him into bed again. Finally, we convinced him this was no way to live, and he went into the hospital for a third time, this time ending in a 3-week stay in rehab. I almost lost him during this hospital stay, but he decided on Valentine's Day, during a huge snowstorm, that he wanted to live. He regained his faculties and by the time rehab was over, around St. Patrick's Day, he was back on his feet after 9 weeks of hospital care and rehab. But he'd never be able to climb stairs again, so while he was still in the hospital I had to find us a new home.
George loved the new apartment, with its big windows looking out into the woods. He would lay in bed and just look out the window during the day. He ordered a sectional couch with a chaise so he could lay in the living room and do the same. With physical therapy and a wheelchair, we could still do most of the things he loved to do. He got a walker and an oxygen concentrator for the bad days.
Around August, he took another turn for the worse. His appetite changed, to where everything tasted metallic to him. He got weaker, from walking to the parking lot and driving by himself in June to needing the wheelchair in August. Soon he could no longer even walk to the bathroom unaided. His cardiologist suggested he try to get into an experimental program at Albany Med providing LVAD units (like artificial hearts but less drastic) as a "destination therapy", meaning they're used permanently rather than just while waiting for a heart donor.
Signs of dementia began creeping in. By early September, he couldn't remember how to operate the TV remotes or focus long enough to read an email. We had our 11th anniversary in a hotel room in Vermont, a repeat of our tenth. It was bittersweet in that he never got back to that little Irish restaurant on Church Street, but we got one last vacation together. I even took him back to the fair, though this visit was much more brief and less enjoyable for both of us as he was confined to his wheelchair and I was pushing him.
Two weeks later, he decided we needed to drive out to Massachusetts to visit my family and go to Atkins Farm in Amherst. My best friend Leenie and I piled him and his wheelchair into the car and drove out there. He enjoyed buying lunch for my parents and wheeling around the store, picking baked goods to bring home. As I pushed him up and down the aisles of picked-over donuts and pies, since it was late in the afternoon on a Sunday, I realized he was here not just to shop, but to say goodbye to the people who loved him almost as much as I do. We visited my nieces and their parents, and though no one said it out loud, many tears were shed.
On Tuesday, September 18, George called me at work to let me know he'd called the ambulance. He was suffering from shortness of breath and was too weak to get up from the chaise. I met him in Samaritan hospital, where they were treating him for hypothermia and dehydration. He was slipping in and out of lucidity, and Leenie hooked us up with hospice care.
On Wednesday I spoke with his cardiologist and asked for a prognosis. He apologized and said George had "weeks or months, not years" to live, and that hospice was the right way to go. He said he'd be discharging George the next morning into hospice care.
Thursday morning, they discharged George. We brought him home. "Missed me," he laughed as an acorn bounced off the car next to him, just barely missing his head. Once he was in the house, an intake nurse from the hospice came. Seeing that George was having difficulty breathing, the nurse ordered some pain meds to help him, and left. I had some time alone with him, but couldn't stop crying. He asked what was wrong, and I said, "I don't want you to go."
For the first time since I had met George, a single tear escaped his left eye. He smiled at me and spoke in wheezing, rattling breaths. "I don't want to go! I don't want to miss.... all those glorious days... we had ahead of us." He caressed my cheek, wiping away my tears with his thumb. "I love you so much," he said. "I love you too," I told him, and we just held hands for a while. It was the last lucid conversation we would ever have.
His body recovered, but his mind was coming and going. We set him up on the chaise to have lunch. It was a beautiful day, sunny and mild, and the birds and chipmunks were active outside the window. He had asked for fried chicken on the way home, so we got some for him. It tasted terrible to him.
After several miscommunications between the doctor and pharmacy, the hospice nurse came with the pain meds and showed us how to dose them. George's breathing was very labored again by 5pm, and at one point he was crying out for the nurse who was bringing the meds. He took the meds, and by 5:30 his breathing had eased. By 6, he was sleeping peacefully.
While we waited to see how he'd react to the meds, the nurse sat us down and gave us a pamphlet about the signs of approaching death. George had all of them. Every single one. George had been exhibiting all of them for weeks, maybe months. We cried for a little while, realizing the doctor had tried to be kind by giving us an optimistic estimate.
Around 7pm, George began coughing and wheezing in his sleep. We got him awake enough to take another dose of the meds, but he wasn't aware of his surroundings at all. The nurse left, and we stayed with George and watched him. We gave him another dose of one of the meds at 9pm per the nurse's suggestion, crushing the pill and placing it between his cheek and gums, but skipped the other. By now, George was sleeping peacefully again, but his body temperature was dropping. The nurse said we should make him as comfortable as possible, and worry about how he was feeling rather than how his body felt to us. So we did. We covered him with a sheet, since he always kicked the blankets off when we used those.
Around midnight we noticed his skin was becoming clammy despite being ice cold. We kept monitoring him, and realized they had given him his insulin in the hospital that morning but he hadn't eaten any food all day. We checked his blood sugar, the first time I'd ever done so while he was sleeping. The first try came back "Lo". The second, 29.
We called the nurses. They suggested sprinkling sugar into his gums as we'd done with the pill. We started doing that every 15-20 minutes. We propped him up sideways to prevent aspiration and reduce the chance of sleep apnea. After half an hour, it was 24. After an hour, just "Lo" again. But then, around 2am, it came back with 47. Either what we were doing was working, or the insulin was finally wearing off. His body temperature warmed slightly, and the sweating had stopped. We breathed a sigh of relief, gave him some more sugar, and tried to sleep a few hours. I woke up every time he so much as moved his hands.
At 7:30 in the morning on Friday, September 21, I got up to use the bathroom. George was breathing easily despite not having had meds in 10 hours. I breathed another sigh of relief, and came back to lie next to him.
At 8:02am I awoke with a start to realize George wasn't breathing. He was still warm, but shaking him didn't get him to start again. I was reminded, inappropriately, of the scene in Return of the Jedi where one Ewok was prodding another one who'd been shot, and sort of collapsed when he realized the other one wasn't waking up. And with that, the realization hit me. With tears already streaming down my face, I told Leenie that George had stopped breathing. I hugged his body, knowing what was happening but still holding out hope it was a mistake and we were missing his breathing because it was so shallow. His face was absolutely slack, as though he were sleeping peacefully. I kept imagining that I heard him take a breath, or that his fingers moved. We are very cruel to ourselves in times of distress.
The nurse came at around 8:30. She examined George for a few minutes, and said the words we'd been dreading for 7 months: "I'm sorry."
George's death was probably the best possible death a terminally ill person can hope for: he was in his own bed, being watched over by the people who loved him most, and he died in his sleep with no pain.
All of those things are blessings.
But I miss all those glorious days we had ahead of us.
George Walter Olson
July 12, 1940 - September 21, 2007