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The Choices We Don't Make

Jesse Cann

~If I am in a vegetative state for more than six months, I want you to pull the plug~

That’s what is written on a folded up piece of notebook paper, signed at the bottom by my father. It’s something he used to say whenever the issue of extreme measures and life support came up at parties or happy hours. When I wrote the declaration out for him to sign, I didn’t really think much of it. I was young, naïve, and unsuspecting of the fact that those words would one day be anything more than something my father simply said to get a rise out of people.  

The truth is, my father was a pretty polarizing guy. He liked to say and do a lot of things that most people see as crass or, at the very least, politically incorrect. He had a number of redeeming qualities about him too, but he seemed to have no problems with rubbing people the wrong way. I remember one such instance from my childhood when we were stopped at a red light on the way to the grocery store. A fairly overweight woman was passing in front of our car in the crosswalk and my father turned to me and said “If I ever get that large, I want you to shoot me.” We were the only two people in the car, so he didn’t say it to offend anyone or get a laugh. I think that was honestly just how he saw the world.  

In addition to his rather unorthodox outlook on life, my father had a similarly extreme passion for bodybuilding. An all-state wrestler in high school and avid weightlifter, he took exercise very seriously. The same could not be said for some of the other health decisions he made; nevertheless, he loved to brag about how his doctors would claim he had the “heart of an Olympic athlete”—a comparison which was somewhat ironic given that he attended these visits on a similar 4-year schedule. My mother hated the comparison because in my father’s mind, it meant that he could eat and drink whatever he damn well pleased as long as he worked even harder in the gym. He was still 25 at heart and felt he was just as invincible as he did when he actually was that age. Until he wasn’t.      

Many of the details from the night of the accident are unclear. What we do know is that my father was involved in a car wreck that put him in a coma and killed the other driver on impact. He was on his way home from dinner with a client, and the other driver had been drinking. It was raining that night, and the two cars collided head on. I was studying for a cardiology exam when I received the phone call from my mother around midnight informing me that my father had been in an accident and was currently in surgery. It was my second year of medical school and I was living in the city at the time, which was only a thirty-minute drive from the hospital he was at. Almost unconsciously, I got in my car and drove there. To this day, I still can’t remember what roads I took.  

When I arrived in the lobby of the hospital, I saw my older brother standing in front of a sign with arrows pointing in the direction of various wards. “Hey,” I said somberly “do you know where mom is?” “Yeah, she’s uhh…she’s in the surgery waiting room with Chase,” he replied, eyes fixed on the sign. We stood there in front of that sign for about 5 minutes not saying another word, both of us still trying to process the circumstances that had brought us there. Eventually he left to find coffee and I went to find my mother and little brother.  

The next couple days after the surgery were touch-and-go until my father’s condition finally stabilized. But he never woke up. The doctors said that these things happen sometimes, that nobody really knows why. And then one day they told us that we needed to start considering some different courses of treatment for the future. My father’s coma status had not changed since he had recovered from the surgery, and we were told that he would most likely have major physical and mental deficits if he ever did wake up. His doctor in the intensive care unit sat us down and laid out our options. We could either pursue measures to keep him alive indefinitely with a ventilator and intravenous fluids, or we could cease them and let nature take its course. The doctor urged us to consider any conversations that we may have had with my father that might give us some indication of what he would have wanted. The only thing I could remember was the signed note scrawled on that folded up piece of paper.  

We talked for several hours about what we thought my father would have wanted. Ultimately we agreed to continue care that would keep him going for the next six months in hopes that he would wake up. When that time finally came without any change, we decided that we had to let him go. The decision did not come down to what was written on the note that my father had me jot down so many years ago, although that did give us a general timeline for how long he felt was appropriate to wait. The decision instead came down to what we believe my father saw as a life worth living. He was the type of man who could not be trusted to take it easy after surgery because he had already planned a kayaking trip down the Nantahala for the following day; the type of man who iced his shoulder every night before bed because despite warnings from multiple doctors, he was not going to let a little pain keep him from living his life the way he wanted. He was not the type of man who could happily adjust to life in a wheelchair or with an oxygen mask, but rather, a robust, bear of a man who believed that life was best lived by getting outside and experiencing it.  

I loved my father and although I wanted nothing more than to hold out for a miracle, I admired and respected the way that he lived his life. He would never have been satisfied watching it from the sidelines. In the end, my brothers, my mother, and I were responsible for deciding what kind of life my father could potentially have, and yet, he would be the one who would have to lead it. Life is about the choices we make. But when the decisions pertaining to our own lives are left up to the ones we love, all we can do is hope that they do right by us, even if that means going against what they really want.       




Jesse Cann 
Year in school: 1st year Medical Student 
Hometown: Alpharetta, GA
Undergrad attended: University of Georgia
Favorite quote: “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates." – Mark Twain


Last Updated: 02-28-2017
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