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Living AND Dying on My Terms

How I Took Control of My Healthcare in the Face of a Life-or-Death Decision By Martha Mabey, Ph.D.
Martha Mabey is a former teacher, art dealer and author of five books — one of which (“Artists Die Best in Black”) has been made into a movie. Her memoir, “The Last Doctor in America,” concerns a physician, George Meyerhoff, who put relationships with his patients first. Her books are available through Amazon.

Martha Mabey is a former teacher, art dealer and author of five books — one of which (“Artists Die Best in Black”) has been made into a movie. Her memoir, “The Last Doctor in America,” concerns a physician, George Meyerhoff, who put relationships with his patients first. Her books are available through Amazon.

Martha Mabey is an energetic woman with a passion for writing and spending time with her family and friends. When confronted with a life-threatening condition, she had only a brief moment to choose how she wanted to spend her remaining days. In making her decision, she challenged a healthcare system that too often overlooks the priorities and values of patients.

Three years ago I was lying in a hospital bed, having survived a claustrophobic MRI, two CT scans, virtual massaging of my carotid arteries and the extraction of what felt like a gallon of blood.

Into the room walked a tall, good-looking man I’d never seen before. Towering over me, he announced his name and said he was a cardiac surgeon. I had a split aorta with an aneurysm ready to burst. I would die, he said, unless I immediately followed him to surgery so he could operate on me and save my life.

He indicated his nurse in the doorway, gowned up for surgery, and said I was to go with her, that he had booked the operating room.

There was no offer to call my family or my personal physician. No questions about who I was, let alone whether I had concerns about this abruptly announced life-or-death situation.

For a moment I was in shock. I was no longer a person with needs, loves, quirks and a unique history. I had become only a split aorta that this masterful technician would take in his hands and, like God, repair.

Somewhere deep inside me, these words emerged: “Well, I’m not doing that.”

Frowning, he reiterated that I would die if I didn’t go.

By this time I was angry, no longer frightened by the prospect of dying. Who was he to tell me what to do with my body? I was a unique individual, not just a combination of organs that needed fixing. More importantly, I was a living soul with no fear of death.

He said his last patient with the same diagnosis died on the way to the operating room.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. With even more certainty I added, “There are worse things than dying.”

At that moment I knew that under no circumstances did I want to face a long recovery from major surgery. I had done that before — with pain, weeks of physical therapy and days of helplessness. I did not want to risk the quality of life I so deeply enjoyed. I was 77 years old and liked my pace of life as a writer, former educator and art dealer. Why would I give that up to prolong an existence in a compromised situation for an unknown period of time?

Had I been 20 or even 50 years old, my decision might have been different.

But I was certain I did not want to live just for the sake of simply living.

I paid attention to some wisdom deep inside and did not assume that an expert knew more than I did about myself after decades of joy and grief. Perhaps I’m still alive because I insisted on living on my terms — not on the surgeon’s, nor on those of the medical literature that predicted my demise.