Straight from the Heart
Her Familys Persistence, Playing the Odds (and a little prayer) Gave 85-Year-Old Anna Felsen a Reason to Live
By: Amy Berger
"Im going to Maryland again, Ill see you Monday," Linda Fishman said to her coworkers at Metropolitan Lifes Staten Island office on a Friday afternoon in March, 1998. She was leaving early at the start of a sunny and warm weekend, but her fellow insurance salesmen werent jealous. In fact, they wished her well, said they would cover for her, and one even gave her a comforting, supportive squeeze of her hands. Linda was about to begin what had become her weekend routine, driving five hours to North Arrundel Hospital in Glenburney, Maryland, to visit her 85 year-old mother, Anna Felsen, in the Intensive Care Unit.
Four weeks before, Anna had requested an ambulance for herself from the assisted living facility in which she lived. Several hours earlier, Lindas brother, Ira Felsen, and his family, who conveniently live in Maryland, had taken Anna out for a Chinese dinner, as they did every Sunday night. The family knew something wasnt right when she didnt eat much. "My mothers always had a healthy appetite and been a big eater," Linda said, "so right away, they knew something was wrong."
At first, doctors thought she had an ulcer, and were hesitant to operate because of her age. They performed surgery anyway and discovered that it was much more serious. Anna had stomach cancer. This was not her first experience with the disease - twenty years earlier she had a double mastectomy to rid her body of breast cancer. At that time, she was 65 and in a very weakened state, but the birth of her only granddaughter just three days later sustained her. Linda said, "My mothers arm was in a sling, so I put Lisa in her good arm, and she told me, I will live for this. This came at a time in my life when I need it." Anna was widowed in her forties, but had been highly social ever since. She was always dressed to the nines, made-up, and never lacked male companionship.
Although she had beaten the odds once before, Annas family kept the truth about her condition from her, in hopes that her spirits would be higher if she thought the outlook was positive. According to Mona Storm, the Medicare Coordinator and a Registered Nurse specializing in geriatrics at Staten Islands Silver Lake Specialized Care Center, "Patients who believe theyll get better are often more motivated and cooperative. If they dont think they have a chance, sometimes they give up when in fact, they wouldve made a strong, though slow, recovery."
Doctors performed a successful second surgery to remove the cancerous tissue from Annas stomach. However, a few days after the operation, she took a turn for the worse. Small blood vessels began bursting, she developed infections from the many food and medicine tubes connected to her, and she contracted pneumonia.
Annas doctors told her family she didnt have long to live. With the prognosis so negative, almost Annas entire family managed to get to Maryland. Grandchildren and cousins traveled from New York, Chicago, Oregon, and Washington to lend support and be there in case the worst happened. The family was focused on the fact that the worst would indeed happen, and there were several arguments about how to proceed, or whether to proceed at all, with Annas treatment. The nurse points out, "A consistent family support unit is sometimes better than any medicine, but other times, its just not enough. Families often set unrealistic expectations, especially for people with multiple illnesses. Theyre not just going to get up and go home."
Annas family debated what to do next. Her son, Ira, refused to have her undergo more surgery. He was adamant in his belief that she had been through enough already, and should be allowed to die without additional suffering. Linda had the opposite view, and at a time when they shouldve been able to comfort each other, their relationship was strained and cold. "We fought bitterly about this for days. My brothers an extremely intelligent man, but hes not a doctor, and I didnt think it was up to him to decide that she wasnt going to make it."
Meanwhile, Anna continued her own battle. As a result of the medication, she was often incoherent and disoriented. She didnt always recognize family members, and she insisted that Linda had had another daughter, and kept asking to see the baby. However, in a rare moment of clarity, Anna told Linda simply, "Look at my whole family here. I want to live."
|"Her heart was still excellent, her kidneys, her liver, were still fine," Linda said. "The will to live was there." She eventually convinced her brother to let their mother have another chance. The doctors refused to perform more surgery because they didnt believe there was any way shed survive, let alone recover. Linda didnt give up. She begged and insisted, finally telling the doctors she would accept full responsibility for the outcome. "I had to make them at least try. I couldnt live with myself knowing that my mother wanted to keep fighting, and we didnt let her."||"I had to make [the doctors] at least try. I couldnt live with myself knowing that my mother wanted to keep fighting, and we didnt let her."|
After coming out of a third surgery, Anna began slipping into a coma. Her grandson, Lindas son, Marc, sat with her and talked to her for the next four hours. As her first and closest grandchild, if anyone would be able to reach her, itd be him. The doctors told him to talk about anything, just to let her hear his voice. "Marcs a severe diabetic, and the nurses couldnt have been more helpful for him and the whole family. I cant count how many times they brought him juice or helped him calm down so we wouldnt have another person to worry about." Linda was often there from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., when she would finally leave to get rest and make sure she didnt wind up in the hospital herself. "The doctors told me they absolutely couldnt believe how often I was there. They knew I was driving down from New York as often as I could. Theyd say, you know, some of these people never get visitors, and youre here constantly."
It seems like everyone even remotely connected to Linda or her mother came together to do whatever they could to help. Lindas coworkers at MetLife Insurance covered her appointments with clients, knowing that shed sometimes be gone for days. And in the most bizarre turn of events during the months when Anna was most critical, Linda went on an appointment to the house of a new client, Alan Farkus. She met Farkus on a Thursday evening, and when she found out that he regularly attends Friday night services at the Willowbrook Jewish Center in Staten Island, she asked a special favor of him. She explained Annas situation. "I said, Alan, do me a favor. When you go to temple tomorrow night, ask the rabbi to say a prayer for my mother." The next night, at Farkus request, special prayers for Annas health were said by the entire congregation.
Early the very next morning, Lindas sister-in-law, Leigh Felsen, called her from Maryland. She told Linda she wouldnt believe the news - Annas condition had turned around completely. "She actually used the word miracle," Linda said. "She said it was a miracle." Leigh had no idea that any prayers had been said, and the doctors had no medical explanation for her sudden improvement. Linda knows theres no way to prove that the prayers had anything to do with Annas recovery, but she and her husband now make regular donations to the temple.
Anna improved, and was eventually moved to the Millennium Nursing Center, where 24-hour medical care is available. Her family told her the truth about how bad her condition had been. Mrs. Storm says, "This mightve been best in this particular situation. If they had told her shed be all right in a few days, there couldve been serious family conflicts. Very often families try to keep their loved one calm by downplaying the prognosis, and the patient knows the familys lying, which leads to additional stress that no patient needs."
Anna has been doing beautifully since she moved into Millennium. Her appetite is back, and shes regained all the weight she lost while being fed intravenously. Shes even found a "boyfriend" who invites her to his room to watch movies and play cards. "The only big difference I notice now is that she stopped coloring her hair," Linda said. "Shes been either a blonde or a redhead her whole life." Ira (who hasnt apologized to Linda for not respecting her decision to keep their mother alive) and his family still take her out to dinner every Sunday, but now, they take her boyfriend too. "Shes always been a talker, and loves having people around." Anna said she wanted to live and enjoy the family that surrounded her, and thats just what shes doing.