Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Questionable Cause of Death

The only death certificate in my records that shows "Alzheimer's Disease" as a cause of death is my mother's death certificate. Most of my ancestors lived into their mid 70s with a cause of death being heart or diabetes related. My mother barely made it past her 58th birthday.

My mom was first diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure when she was in her early 40s. I was away at college when she collapsed and was brought to the hospital. The story is that she had a doctor wearing a turban who said, with his Indian accent, "God has given you a second chance". She immediately quit smoking, changed her eating habits, began going for walks a couple of times a week, and lost a lot of weight. Unfortunately the bad habits (thankfully not the smoking) came back after a while.

In the spring of 1995, a few months after her 53rd birthday, she suffered a serious stroke. I got the call just as I was heading out the door to go the airport for a tax conference. My dad and I agreed that I should go to the conference since that first day or two was just a waiting game. I could get up to NY from San Antonio just as easily as I could from Ft. Lauderdale. A couple of days later I was at the hospital. When I walked into the ICU, she saw me from across the unit and waived to me. After being released from the hospital, she kept up with the rehab for a while but was getting depressed that she wouldn't be able to move down to Florida as she had planned. My sister in Orlando decided to take her in and her attitude, and therefore her physical condition, improved. After a while, she started going downhill again with what the doctor called "silent heart attacks", a side effect of the diabetes. My dad sold the house in NY and he and my mom moved in to the condo he owned where he cared for her until she died at a hospice in January 2000, 5 days after her 58th birthday.

My mom wasn't always the easiest person to get along with before the stroke. There were times when you could have a nice conversation with her and joke around and other times when her short fuse blew and you could tell just by looking at her that she was steaming. Looking back there were also signs of depression which, combined with her suppressed anger, only compounded her existing medical conditions. I have her drivers license which was renewed a few months before the stroke. Those pictures always suck anyway but, looking back now, she did not look healthy.

Believe it or not, it was easier to get along with her after the stroke. I remember one time I was visiting my sister. I was in the kitchen with my mom and she showed me that she could reach her bad arm up to a high shelf and grab a glass bowl. I said that was really good and joked that she might want to practice with plastic instead of glass. The laughed and called me a wise ass. Before the stroke, she would have taken offense to that same joke. Unfortunately this didn't last long. Her mind started to go as her body was withering away. By the time she died, she would just mumble on about nothing and she looked like one of the skeletons liberated from the WWII concentration camps. I give my dad a lot of credit for caring for her. They weren't getting along well when she had the stroke. He chose to step up. He's a better person than I am...I couldn't do it. It's just not in me.

The cause of death on her death certificate is Alzheimer's Disease. With the diabetes, heart problems, stroke, and all of other problems related to these ailments, as well as the fact that she was still young, it's unlikely that Alzheimer's was the culprit. My guess is that the doctor was part of some Alzheimer's study and needed another subject. Just a guess, no way to know for sure.

You would think after all my mom went through I'd learn my lesson. I don't smoke, I exercise, and I go for all of my annual physical exams but I do have my bad eating habits and need to get my weight down. Maybe after writing this I'll be motivated to drop my bad least some of them :-)

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