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'I couldn't let her be alone': A peaceful death amid the COVID scourge

JoNel Aleccia, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

As her mother lay dying in a Southern California hospital in early May, Elishia Breed was home in Oregon, 800 miles away, separated not only by the distance, but also by the cruelty of the coronavirus.

Because of the pandemic, it wasn't safe to visit her mom, Patti Breed-Rabitoy, who had entered a hospital alone, days earlier, with a high fever and other symptoms that were confirmed to be caused by COVID-19.

Breed-Rabitoy, 69, had suffered from lung and kidney disease for years but remained a vital, bubbly presence in the lives of her husband, Dan Rabitoy, and three grown children. She was a longtime church deacon and youth leader in Reseda, California, a fan of garage sales, bingo games and antique dolls. Then came COVID-19, likely contracted in late April following one of her thrice-weekly dialysis sessions. Now she lay sedated and on a ventilator, her life ebbing, with no family by her side.

"I had seen these things on TV and I would pray for those people and say, 'I can't imagine what they're going through,'" said Breed, 44. "And now I was living it."

A single mom of two young sons, she was wrenched with guilt at not being with her mother. "You always picture you're going to be right by your parent's side," she said.

Unlike many families of dying COVID patients, Breed and her family were able to find some comfort in her mother's final hours because of the 3 Wishes Project, a UCLA Health end-of-life program repurposed to meet the demands of the coronavirus crisis. In the U.S., where more than 120,000 people have died of COVID, it's part of a wider push for palliative care during the pandemic.

 

At 5 p.m. on May 10, Mother's Day, before Breed-Rabitoy's life support was removed, more than a dozen family members from multiple cities and states gathered on a Zoom call to say goodbye. John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High," one of her soft-rock '70s favorites, played on speakers. Online, a chaplain prayed.

Breed-Rabitoy had been deeply sedated for more than a week, since a terrible night when she struggled to breathe and asked doctors to place her on the ventilator. Confusion abounded, Breed said. Could her mom still hear in that state? Two nights in a row, Breed asked nurses to prop a phone near her mom's ear.

"I prayed with her. I sang her favorite songs. I read her the Bible," she said.

Finally, a nurse gently explained that her mother was too sick to recover. If they removed the ventilator, it would be to allow her to die.

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