Confronting the Inevitable

It’s never easy to contemplate one’s mortality. Yet end-of-life planning is essential at any age, as I learned all too well when my husband contracted COVID-19 several months into the pandemic. The peace of mind such forethought brings is essential should the worst come to pass.

Unseen figures holding hands

Theresa Jo Gaffney

December 19, 2022 12:00 AM

My husband, Tim, and I were known for being big dreamers, planners and adventurers. We lived fully, intentionally and with deep gratitude for the life we cultivated. We worked hard our whole lives, and when we retired, we were ready to play hard.

One of our proudest accomplishments was the completion of “The Great Loop,” an epic circumnavigation by boat of the eastern U.S. and parts of Canada. It was a multiyear endeavor involving friends, adventure and many nights looking at charts and plotting our course.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020 and we were forced to quarantine, we took solace in pacing ourselves for a few weeks at home.

When those few weeks turned into a few months, though, we started seeking ways to safely reconnect with our communities. I’m a songwriter, guitarist and singer, so I took to Facebook Live to perform free “quarantine concerts” to lift the spirits of friends and family. We signed up to help sell Christmas trees and serve food at a soup kitchen. We wore masks, sanitized constantly and tried to maintain distance as much as possible. As happened to so many, though, despite our best efforts to be careful, we both fell sick with COVID-19 after these well-intentioned outings.

On Tuesday, December 8, 2020, we received our positive diagnosis. We were trying to remain hopeful that we would have mild cases, but Tim was diabetic and in his 60s; we weren’t ignorant of how serious this could be. There were few treatments available, no vaccine and limited information on long-term effects.

On Sunday, December 13, I took Tim to the hospital when his symptoms worsened, and he had trouble breathing. He was promptly diagnosed with pneumonia. The staff immediately began searching for a larger hospital to transport him to, but none was available. All hospitals were filled to overflowing with COVID-19 patients. Then things got much worse.

My husband was in the ICU living out his worst nightmare: dying in a hospital, alone, listening to the sounds of the machines that were fighting to keep him alive."

The following Tuesday, Tim went into respiratory arrest and exhibited signs of a stroke. He was sedated and intubated, and the search for a larger hospital intensified. After days of exhaustive and frantic searching by hospital staff, insurance companies and even family members, we found a larger hospital in the Atlanta area that could handle the severity of his situation.

That Friday, December 18, Tim was airlifted and immediately received a battery of tests. A few hours later, an emergency room doctor told me that the COVID-19-pneumonia had sent blood clots throughout Tim’s body. The clots in his brain had caused multiple strokes on both sides. It was too soon to know the extent of the damage, but they already knew he would be blinded and paralyzed on his left side, and that his executive functions would be affected. There wasn’t much hope. They were making him comfortable, and only time would tell. Then the doctor asked if Tim had any medical directives. My mind could not absorb this information.

My husband was in the ICU living out his worst nightmare: dying in a hospital, alone, listening to the sounds of the machines that were fighting to keep him alive.

I was alone as well—still quarantined. Doctors needed to know about medical directives and wills, and we had none of this. Although we had always been planners, planning end-of-life care seemed too somber, and we always put it off. We never wanted to think about the unthinkable. We thought such paperwork was vital only after someone died. But Tim was still very much alive—except now I needed the ability to make decisions for him.

In the days that followed, Tim regained consciousness, came off the ventilator and began speaking. It was nothing short of a miracle, but the doctors reminded me often of the reality that he was still a very sick man. It was apparent that the strokes had indeed caused brain injury. He was given medications to ease agitation, confusion and aggression in addition to treating the remaining blood clots.

On Christmas Eve, I was able to see him for the first time in more than two weeks. I was one of the very few family members who were allowed to visit a loved one in the hospital during the pandemic. I saw with my own eyes the severity of his new disabilities and became aware that our life would never be the same. Sadly, the unthinkable was our life now. I had to find a solution to the fact that Tim and I did not have wills or medical directives.

When I met with my attorney, we discussed my situation in depth, and I let him know my intentions of crafting a medical directive and will for both Tim and me. He advised that we more immediately needed a power of attorney, which would give me the ability to specify all financial matters including gaining access to our bank accounts, car titles and deeds.

In addition to offering his professional advice on legal documents, he was able to provide guidance on how to introduce this idea to Tim over the course of a few days and how we would navigate virtually signing the documents with a sufficient number of witnesses on both sides. As I was the only non–staff member permitted to be in the hospital, I would need a nurse as a witness on my side of the video call.

I do not understate the miracle of being able to get these documents signed when we did or the impact it made on my ability to get through the upcoming weeks and months."

On January 8, 2021, a day when Tim was alert and clearheaded, our attorney met with us via videoconference. He patiently explained to Tim all the particulars of the paperwork. I explained all my intentions for our wills, detailed which assets we needed to liquify immediately and verified that I had Tim’s wishes outlined correctly on the medical directive. Our lawyer gave us ample opportunity to ask questions before we signed our paperwork in front of our nurse-witness and the staff acting as witnesses on our attorney’s side.

Finally, all the paperwork was signed, and I had everything I needed to navigate us through our new “normal.” I do not understate the miracle of being able to get these documents signed when we did or the impact it made on my ability to get through the upcoming weeks and months.

On February 18, Tim was moved to a nursing home for rehabilitation, but his required level of care necessitated maximum assistance, and he became a permanent resident. I am eternally grateful we got our documents signed when we did, as it made it much easier for me to handle our affairs in the months that followed. It was a long summer, with multiple hospitalizations and returns to the nursing home. I know how overwhelming this was for me with the proper paperwork finally in hand, and I cannot sympathize enough with those who did not get the miracle with which I was blessed.

On September 4, 2021, nine long months after his initial diagnosis, Tim passed away, and I was at his side—exactly as we had hoped when we finally discussed end-of life-care.

After his passing, I became the executor of his will and estate, charged by the probate court with handling all the estate’s affairs and processing assets the way Tim and I dictated in our wills. With the letters testamentary that the court presented to me as the executor, I was able to close accounts, transfer items to our beneficiaries and distribute his estate.

Many people are like us: delaying preparing this important paperwork because we didn’t want to think about dying. But Tim was living for nine months with horrible medical conditions, and I needed to take care of him. Having the power of attorney was the only way I could afford a quality of life for him in a facility and myself in a rental nearby. Having the medical directive ensured that I was authorizing care the way he wanted. And having his will meant that my grieving his loss was not compounded by confusion over what to do.

Despite how hard it is to imagine losing a loved one, there is great comfort in knowing you are doing things according to their wishes. If you haven’t already done so, get your will, power of attorney and medical directive completed now. If you already have all these, be sure to review them regularly to assess whether any changes are needed. The greatest gift you can give yourself and your family is making sure the tools are in place to take care of one another.

Theresa Jo Gaffney is a singer, songwriter and author. She has written numerous articles for MG car magazines and is currently writing a book about her life and travels with her husband. Early next year she plans to resume performing her music locally and recording a new CD. She lives in North Georgia with her dog, Lucy, and enjoys spending time with her family, especially her grandchildren.

Headline Image: Adobe Stock/ Sudok1

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