Daughter Defies Doctors' Terminal Prognosis to Help Save Her Mother's Life While in Hospice

"I opted right then to invoke my power of attorney, call an ambulance and get my mom out of hospice," Cathy Free says    

Photo: Courtesy Cathy Free

On the seventh night that my mother was in hospice care, dying of a blood infection that doctors said would soon stop her heart, I suddenly awakened at 3 a.m., and went outside in my pajamas to look at the velvet, star-filled sky above my Salt Lake City home.

While searching for Orion and Sirius on that crisp November night, the way my mom had taught me as a child, I was overcome with the same spectacular thought that had kept me awake the night before: “What if my mother was not actually dying?”

“Don’t fly away yet, Snowy Owl Woman,” I whispered, touching the owl necklace around my neck that I’d bought my mother at a witchcraft shop several years earlier in Glastonbury, England. I hadn’t taken it off since my mother became critically ill, afraid that if I did, she would take wing and stop living.

Courtesy Cathy Free

“There’s something that I need to know,” I kept telling myself as I shivered in the frosty air that night. “Maybe it’s not yet my mom’s time.”

As it turned out, I was right.

Working as a PEOPLE correspondent for more than three decades, I have covered my share of miraculous stories, from the Oregon park ranger who claimed to have felt an unknown force holding him against a cliff when he should have fallen to his death, to a Colorado woman who said she was inspired to survive after an ATV accident when “angel” dogs from her past appeared and gave her the courage to go on.

But I never dreamed that I would end up in the middle of my own miracle on the day after Thanksgiving this year.

It all started in late September, when my 77-year-old mother, Joy Anderson, a lover of snowy owls, UFOs, British mystery novels and everything green, ended up in a rehab center after her left knee gave way while she was moving a heavy box for a yard sale.

Courtesy Cathy Free

About six weeks into her stay, she was diagnosed with pneumonia, which my three younger siblings and I were assured could be treated in-house. When my mom’s condition worsened, she was finally taken to a hospital where it was discovered that she didn’t have pneumonia after all, but sepsis — a deadly blood infection that had spread from her injured knee and was attacking her organs.

After a couple of emergency dialysis treatments to boost her kidney function, doctors told us there was nothing more they could do. Our mother needed to be released to hospice care, they said, and she would likely live no more than two or three days.

Not expecting my mom to make it to Thanksgiving, I quickly organized a family get-together five days before the holiday to toast her in her hospice room over Champagne and apple pie. Then, I settled into a sad but strangely comforting routine.

Every day, I’d arrive with a lemonade and a chocolate milkshake, which I’d slowly spoon-feed to my mother before reading aloud from one of her favorite books, “A Year in Provence.” As she drifted in and out of sleep on a morphine high, we shared many tender moments of love, heartache and humor, and I’d leave each evening, grateful that I’d had one more chance to say goodbye.

During my drive home, I often wept as I recalled our conversations.

“Mama, I love you — this is hard, but I’ll try to be brave,” I’d told her, resting my head on her chest to feel her warmth and hear her heartbeat.

Courtesy Cathy Free

“I love you too, darling daughter,” she’d said, reaching for my hand. “Think of the happy times. Remember your pink canopy bed? I can still see you smiling and sleeping there.”

As “one to two days” soon stretched to five or six, then seven or eight, I put on my reporter’s hat and took notes every day about what I was seeing and feeling, and I recorded dozens of moments, both happy and heartbreaking, to cope with my sorrow. I also wrote about my mother’s last days on the blog that I’d started several months earlier.

On Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I noticed that something had changed.

My mother was suddenly more tired and felt nauseous. She no longer wanted that creamy chocolate milkshake, and my siblings and I could feel her slipping away. But something about this new “normal” seemed very different. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.

In spite of her dire prognosis, my mother still had a strong grip and she could lift her head at odd angles to take sips from her water cup. The swelling on her hands and legs had gone down, and she wasn’t exhibiting the signs of “near death” (difficulty swallowing, changes in body temperature, hallucinations) that we’d been told to expect.

Was this what it was like to die? Or maybe, just maybe…could the “experts” have been wrong?

After my late night in the backyard, gazing with tear-filled eyes at the stars, I asked three times in two days for a doctor to stop by my mother’s room and give her a blood test so that we could find out where she was on her “end of life” journey. Nobody showed up.

Finally, on the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday, of all days), I decided, “enough.” If a doctor wouldn’t order a blood panel for my mom, I would order one myself and pay for it privately. I had an overwhelming feeling that if I didn’t call in a mobile phlebotomist, my mother would be gone by Sunday.

My mom’s blood was drawn just in time for the weekend deadline at the lab in West Jordan, Utah, then I went home, while one of my brothers took a turn at her bedside. At 9:30 p.m., my phone rang, and a nurse at the care center gave me the news: “The lab called and will be faxing your mother’s complete test results in the morning. But they wanted to let you know that her potassium level is critical.”

Potassium? Did my mother need bananas instead of morphine?

My brother raced to the store to buy a potassium supplement to crush up and give to our mother, since none could be offered by the night nurse without a doctor’s order. Then early the next morning, unable to sleep, I went to see my mom and waited for the fax from the lab. A nurse helped explain the results: Besides critically low potassium that could stop her heart, my mother was anemic and her kidneys weren’t functioning at full throttle. But her white blood cell count — the number that should have revealed her sepsis infection — was normal.

I opted right then to invoke my power of attorney, call an ambulance and get my mom out of hospice.

At the hospital (a different one instead of the one that had sent her away to die), my mom’s emergency room doctor told my sister and me that he used to run a hospice center. “Your mother never should have been sent to hospice care,” he said. “It is not yet her time. I can’t explain it, but her sepsis is gone and she can be successfully treated and get on with her life.”

Too shocked to speak, I rushed from the room and found a quiet corner to collapse into and cry. Just a few days before, I’d been lining up my mother’s cremation and searching for songs with “joy” in the title for my two teenagers to play on their musical instruments at her memorial service. How does a daughter move from despairing over certain death to the realization that she now needs to buy her mother a Christmas present?

It’s a wonderful problem to have.

Now that she is in a new rehab center, slowly getting her strength back so that she can have a knee replacement operation, I’ll be taking my mom’s favorite homemade lasagna to her on Christmas Day, grateful to share one more holiday. My two children and husband plan to surprise her by holding up a large wooden sign that I’d spotted in a hospital gift shop window at the end of her stay.

Courtesy Cathy Free

Quite simply, it sums up how we all feel. “JOY,” it says. On Christmas night, when I go outside to look at the stars, I’ll remember what our joyful “Snowy Owl Woman” told me in the hospital the night I rescued her from hospice care.

“Thank you, my dear daughter,” my mother had whispered with shining eyes, “for saving my life.”

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