A Death of a Friend from ALS

Joe C

My longtime dear friend, Joe Cornelio, died at the end of April, after living with, and I mean, living with, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for five years. Although he spent the last four of those years in a chronic care hospital on a ventilator and virtually helpless, he never once gave up on life or stopped loving it. He was a miracle of a man and even at the end I believe he would have continued to fight to live, even if all he could do was move one eyeball to say yes or no. It is entirely possible that he would have wanted to live even without that ability, but we will never know.

It is difficult for me to write about the day he died, or about how it came to pass that he was removed from his ventilator, but if you will bear with me, it may do some good (for me at any rate) to put the pieces together and get it onto paper.

I believe that Joe was misdiagnosed for many many years with schizophrenia, when in fact he had had Asperger’s from childhood. Now, that’s a long story in itself and though I could make a case for it, I cannot prove it. But I am not the only one who knew him well to notice that he never once exhibited signs of psychosis or even real delusions or true paranoia. Furthermore, from what I gather, the only reason the diagnosis came about or  “took” was because he was put on Trilafon by a well-known psychiatric incompetent who was later “defrocked” and when Joe looked the drug up in the PDR and read what it was used for, he concluded that that meant he must have schizophrenia. From then on, so his story was, he told subsequent doctors this diagnosis, and apparently they simply took it on faith. In fact, for all the years thereafter until his terminal illness of ALS, the one doctor he saw not only never questioned this, but also never even reconsidered his absurd concomitant Dx as bipolar, even though Joe clearly had one of the most placid temperament possible and certainly wasn’t the slightest bit moody. No one so far as I know ever even considered that there might be something else going on. Even when I once went with him to see his non-medical therapist, did she really seem even to want to think about the possibility, as if it might be too much trouble…Perhaps, though I cannot recall, it was too late, if in fact this was after Joe’s ALS diagnosis.

But as I said, that is a long story, and not being a doctor, I suppose I can’t make the diagnosis, except that as his closest friend, I do and I feel that a great injustice was done. Not only was he saddled with a serious psychiatric diagnosis, and a stigmatizing one at that, but that particular neuroleptic medication rendered him much too tired to work as an engineer. All his adult life that was what he really wanted to do. Work. But the drug sapped his stamina…Worst of all, although eventually on Zyprexa which helped what might have been poor social skills due to Asperger’s, after he had been on it for years it caused the diabetes that ultimately cost him his life.

Speaking of engineering, all the years I knew him, Joe thought, breathed and ate engineering in one fashion or another. It is not that he was an automaton or a bore so much as that he applied engineering thinking to every problem that came up in life, even to our quarrels. Or better to put it, to my various emotional upsets. Whenever I got in some sort of “state” his approach was always to remain calm and to break things down into little pieces and to try figure out, or to help me figure out what was wrong and (just like a man) how to fix things. The beauty of this approach was that it so often worked! He never fed the fires, and he never took things personally, which was pure magic. Sure, he could be irritating for the same reasons, since when he was the source of my irritation, he rarely responded and he never listened to anything I had to say, unless someone in authority said the same thing, and then they got the credit. This hurt my feeligns time and time again, for I felt that he never took me seriously, and discounted everything I said as being worthless for my lack of degreed expertise. However, I came to accept that and by the end it was just a joke between us. I would find him a real expert to tell him what I already knew, just so he would believe it.

Anyhow, for all his faults, and even the dead are not blameless, he managed his last illness with amazing gracefulness and not a word of complaint. The day before he was hospitalized with the pneumonia that put him permanently on a ventilator, he saw a new doctor, who actually gave him a clean bill of health, so to speak, and said his lungs were clear! Joe came away from that hour and a half appointment not saying a word, even though he could not breathe well, and had been to see him because of it. The doctor must be right, no? After all, he was a doctor. (So much for medical degrees and expertise…) It was only later that evening when he went into a breathing crisis that Karen drove him to the ER where they found him suffering from aspiration pnsumonia, a common result of ALS when the throat muscles are too weak to prevent saliva and food and liquid from entering the lungs. He was immediately taken to the ICU and spent  3 months there, first with the aspiration pneumonia that almost killed him, and then, just as he was being weaned off the ventilator, with 2 more cases of hospital acquired bacterial pneumonia, which made it impossible.

After that, it was four years in the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, where the care was indeed special. They were wonderful to him there, and I believe he would never have survived as long as he did without them. But in the end, Zyprexa had caused diabetes, which he did not even know he had until the ICU tested his blood sugar, and it was uncontrollable even during the years at the HFSC. During the final year the tissue around his  tracheostomy started breaking down and would not heal, which is not unusual in diabetic skin wounds. Eventually the hole that held the tube grew so large that the air began leaking so much that he was not getting enough oxygen without the pressure beign increased dangerously, and during his last week, his lungs began to bleed, probably as a result. He went in and out of consciousness, according to whether or not he had had a transfusion.

Amazingly enough, though, one of the last times I saw him completely alert, conscious and able to communicate, he told me by moving his eyes and indicating letters on a letter board ( he had lost the ability to control his computer, which for years had spoken what he spelled with the gaze of his eyes) that he was “still chugging along.” When I asked him if his life was still worth it, and if he was still happy with it, he answered without hesitating, YES.

He knew he was dying, but he begged me to make sure no one killed him,  that no one just pulled the plug on him or let him die through neglect. I promised him that, and asked his cousin, who was in charge of funds to hire an aide, just for someone to sit with him during hours when the hospital might be short staffed. This man, Ben, turned out to be an angel in disguise, apparently, though I met him only on the final day.

Why the final day even came as it did I will never know, I suppose. I still do not understand the rush, when the very day before from all reports Joe had been quite conscious alert and seemingly content. All I know is that I got a call the next morning that he was going to be taken off the ventilator that afternoon. I asked first if he was unconscious, and was told, um, yes…but it didn’t sound convincing. Then I asked if this was his wish. The response was that it had been pre-arranged back when he had first become ill.

I wanted to say more, but I was up against two strong men, his cousin and the doctor. And under the pressure of the moment, I forgot that I had any rights in the matter, if I did still. I forgot that at least in Joe’s living will I had been designated at one of the medical representatives, and that the cousin was supposed to consult with me before making any end of life decisions for Joe, and then only if Joe were in a persistent vegetative state or completely and permanently unable to communicate. But so far as I could tell, neither of those conditions were true, had not been true up until now and could not be shown to be true within the space of one day. Yet the announcement was so sudden and so abrupt and definite, that I had no chance to say, Wait a minute, what is the rush?! I simply stammered that I would be there asap. I now wish to god I had stood up for Joe. I know he was conscious when I got there, I know that he could have communicated with me and probably have indicated whether or not he wanted this done. But I didn’t dare ask him, or even bring it up, lest they kill him anyway and my letting him know in advance only increase his terror…Would they have done it expressly against his will? I had no idea! I was terrified that indeed they would have. I didn’t know what to do… I had brought in music for Joe to listen to, because I thought that he was unconscious, but he didn’t seem so to me and though he couldn’t respond, he did seem to see me. And even his cousin talked to him with the same apparent understanding.

But it was all grotesque, because I knew what we all did, and were dancing around not saying, which was that Joe was going to die within the next ten minutes. NO one even said a word. (I admit that I did, privately, indicate to Joe when all were out of the room, that I would be there all of the afternoon, for as long as he needed me, but I didn’t tell him exactly why. Well yes, I did say that the plans he had agreed to at the start of his illness– I cannot recall what I in fact said, but I let him know as gently as I could what was going on. Was I cruel, unintentionally? Well, get this: The doctor who was going to pull the plug came in and in front of Joe, as if he could not hear him, told us all what was going to happen, how he would make Joe unconscious with morphine and then turn off the ventilator, and related  each stage that Joe would go through as he died…He told us this blow by blow right in front of Joe, right as I am sitting there at Joe’s side. But when I asked him to speak directly to Joe, he said, “No, not in Joe’s frame of mind, that wouldn’t be helpful.”

HUH????? What was that supposed to mean?

I will probably be asking that for a long time. Why did he not act like the compassionate physician he was supposed to be? Where was any shred of compassion? For god’s sake, if he was “helping Joe not suffer” where the hell was his empathy for his mental suffering? Did he think that just killing him was not going to cause suffering? I mean, what the hell?

Well, I cannot go further with the details, except to say that I left after Joe was essentially no longer Joe, once he was in a coma. All through his illness, Joe had never seemed any different to me, had never looked or become anyone any different from my old friend. But  at the moment I looked up from his hand as I stroked it, I realized that he was gone (though technically alive) and that Joe was not there. I bolted then and there, realizing that I wanted not to see anything more.

Joe is gone now, and I had a really hard time for several weeks. The funeral was held very quickly an hour away in his home town, so few of his friends who had stuck by him could go, if any. However, a few weeks later, we had a memorial service for him in the hospital, a service I personally found somewhat hurtful, but that is another long story. In any event, I wrote two poems for him, which I read for it. Only one can I print here, as I hope to publish the other before I put it in my third book.

DESIDERATA

for Joe Cornelio

When you die,

let there be lightness in your limbs, so they can rise

to lift you from your bed.

May there be clarity in your speech

so your tongue can once more speak the names

of those you love. Let those syllables wash

your tired face. Take up your hands, reach for mine.

You can wipe your eyes now.

Let your smile widen and shine as it can.

When the perigee moon rises above the water

let it pour gold through the trees,

let the fish leap in the blue ripples of evening

and the frogs that are left sleep in the cool mud.

Wherever you are, may you remember

both the friends who stayed and the friends

who scared, for all of us loved you,

blankets to your chin, and let that warm you.

And should the light fail at the end of the tunnel,

remember: only when it’s dark

can you see the stars.

4 thoughts on “A Death of a Friend from ALS”

  1. Dear Pam,

    Please forgive me in being so slow to respond to your heartfelt post on the death of Joe. I have marveled at Joe’s tenacious hold on life despite extraordinary circumstances. I know I could not have been so brave, so enduring. A long time ago I told you that I believed that euthanasia should be legalized for those who have decided with a clear conscience that they want to die. I know that I still want the right to end my life if I were under dire circumstances. But under no circumstance would I want a person who still had the will to live to be so sentenced to death against their wishes. I am very sorry for the circumstance of Joe’s death. ALS is such a devastating disease in that it robs the sufferer of the the basic human right: to communicate. What good luck for Joe to have you as such a loving and faithful friend who always tried to learn what his wishes were in any given moment. From all that you have said about Joe, he was a wonderful human being and I know he will be sorely missed by those lucky enough to have known him.

  2. Pam,

    I am not sure if you remember me but I was in TLF with you as well as Joe. I later became his room mate on Washington Street in Hartford. I saw Francine Brown recently (She was a couselor at TLF if you don’t remember) at the West Hartford Reservoir walking and it got me thinking about those days back in Hartford.
    I knew you had a book out with your sister but never read it. I just happened to look it up and came across your blog and saw this about Joe. My heart is breaking. He was a very kind gentle man in the time I lived with him. He never once showed any mood swings or psychosis. He was just a sweet caring man. I guess in my mind I still see everyone as they were then in the late 80s to early 90s. I know life went on and people aged and changed and died, but to see a picture of Joe and to read your story on him..I cried. I never really thanked him for his kindness to me and his friendship. I am so happy to see that you remained his close friend and I am happy that in his last days you were there for him. He will always be a part of my past and a part of my memories of those days.

  3. Thanks for this heartfelt account. Joe sounds like a great guy. And you were a dedicated friend. What a nightmare. When I read about the extent of his suffering, I feel lucky indeed to not have ALS. Best wishes, Debbie

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