I had throat cancer. A few years after I finished treatment I got a very sore throat. My family doctor thought I had strep throat and put me on antibiotics for five days. Then somehow the cancer doctors got involved. The surgeon said I had cancer again and painted a very dismal picture. If I didn’t let him operate, take part of my voice box out and put a trach in, they’d be rushing me to emerg sometime when I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t want the operation, but felt I had no choice.
So I had the operation, and it turned out I didn’t have cancer. The pain had been caused by osteomyelitis of the neck. I had all sorts of complications after the surgery. I got very bad pneumonia. I wasn’t able to swallow properly. I had to have stomach feeds, which were horrible because I love to cook and eat. I was in hospital for five months. I mean it was an awful few months.
In retrospect, you didn’t need the operation. Were you angry about that?
Yes. Very. I had an opportunity months later to meet the surgeon. I said, “You made a mistake.” He said, “Well, I am a very cautious person. I thought I was doing the right thing.” I asked why he didn’t wait until he was sure. He said he thought he was. He never apologized.
Susan (Mac’s daughter): Physiotherapy in a general hospital is very different from physio in rehab. We were told that someone from the rehab hospital would come and evaluate Mac, and if they thought that there was something they could do for him, they would take him. At the general hospital, physio would only come in for maybe 10 minutes. We got them to tell us what exercises we could do with him during the rest of the day, to get him ready for when the people from the rehab hospital came.
When the two ladies did come they had to lift him out of the bed with a hoist. That’s how he was being transferred from his bed to a chair – with a mechanical lift. He was so weak he couldn’t even really sit up in a chair. We had to put something in front of him so he wouldn’t slide out of the chair. We were so worried the rehab hospital wouldn’t think there was anything they could do for him and would refuse him. But they took him!
When he got to the rehab hospital, never once did they use a mechanical lift. Right from the beginning they said they could move him with a two person assist. The very first day the nurse and the physiotherapist supported him and I followed with a wheelchair. From that point on, every day got better. We can’t say enough good things about the rehab hospital.
Mac: One therapist said if I didn’t get out of that bed and exercise, I would never get better. After she told me that, I was determined I was going to work hard.
Susan: When Mac was at the rehab hospital the occupational therapist wanted him to do jigsaw puzzles. We kept saying he would rather go down to the kitchen, but she never took him there.
So we solved the problem by bringing a TV tray in, and he did food preparation in his hospital room. He made 70 meatballs one day. He made bacon wrapped water chestnuts for the nurses. Another day I got his potato peeler and let him peel our potatoes for supper. That was a much better OT activity for him than a made up thing he had no interest in.
They never asked Mac what he would like to do?
We kept telling them! I don’t think she could get her head around the fact that a man of 94 really did want to go to the kitchen.
A few months ago Mac had a seizure and pneumonia, and was back in the general hospital. He spent a short while in the ICU and then went to the ward. It was Christmas and there is no physio over Christmas. We kept saying he had to get out of bed. But nobody really wanted to take responsibility because by then it had been a whole week, Mac was weak and they wanted a physiotherapist there.
But there was a nurse who said, “This man was living in his own home wasn’t he? He can’t stay in bed! He has to at least be in a chair.” So she sent somebody to get a good solid arm chair and a pole, and as a family we assumed the responsibility of getting him up so he could bear weight on his feet. We didn’t want him to lose his sense of balance and strength that he had lost four years previously, after his surgery.
You participated in a program where first-year medical students spent a year getting to know you and accompanied you to your health care appointments. How did you find the medical students?
Mac: They were all so nice. And young!
I like to play the odd trick on them. They ask “What do you do in your spare time?” I say I do a lot of crafts and they ask what kind of crafts. I tell them that I have this little house I made. It has a note on it that says “Do not touch”, which only makes people want to touch it. I have set it up so that it has a mousetrap inside, and it flies apart with a big noise when someone touches it. Someone almost always touches it and it scares the heck out of them. We all have a big laugh.
The first two medical students that I had went with me to my colonoscopy. The young woman was great but the young man got weak and had to be helped to a chair and given some water. He was so embarrassed. I told him it was better to get this over with now. When you enter med school you have no practical experience and you don’t know how you are going to react.
When I went for my carpal tunnel operation I was disappointed because the doctor was showing them everything and I couldn’t see what was going on! [laughs]
What do you think they learned from hanging out with you?
I hope they learned to treat all people the same. Don’t be overbearing. I think they got a message to be very considerate. I think they also learned there was more to me than just a carpal tunnel or a colon. That I am a person with a life. And they were always very interested in how this house operates – how I manage to still live at home with my wife who has had a stroke.
Nobody has a better family than I have.
My son died almost 20 years ago, but my daughter-in-law lives within sight of the house. She is very supportive and has three sons who are wonderful. My daughter lives just up the hill. I have lived here since the late ’40s, so the neighbours check in on me all the time.
The mail man is incredible. Checks in on me and will run little errands for me. The other day, a man who lives nearby had a birthday, so we dug out a birthday card and gave it to the mail man. He delivered it without a stamp. We don’t tell too many people that story because we don’t want him to get into trouble!
Since this interview, Mac has passed away. He contracted a serious lung infection, and chose to receive palliative care instead of undergoing a complex procedure with a high risk of complications. He lived out his last week in the comfort of his home surrounded by family, friends, neighbours and the wonderful PSWs who had supported him during the last five years. The evening of June 13th, around 7 o’clock, with all of his family in the house, after having a gin and tonic and butterscotch pie, he took a breath and was gone. As always, Mac did it just his way.