Friends to the End

from Michael Gornik

My friend, Happy Winningham, contracted AIDS early in the epidemic, but defied the odds and lived many years longer than anyone expected. She was an actress by profession, and her love of drama was not diminished by her illness. Several times she went to the brink of death, and even into the world beyond, only to return and take up her life more or less as before.

It wasn’t easy for her. “Like having a constant case of a bad flu,” is how she described her health. But those of us who loved her—and she was loved by many—were grateful for the extra months and years we had together.

This time, however, it was much worse than anything we had seen before. She had been in a coma for days. Her organs were shutting down, and the resulting swelling and discoloration made her almost unrecognizable.

Happy had deep faith in God and no fear of death. She had been to the other side and knew the light and bliss she would find there. She had fought the good fight and, as her friends, we were willing to let her go.

This was more than a theoretical question for me. Happy had given me medical power of attorney, and now I had to decide whether to disconnect her from the machines that were keeping her alive. This was my last act of friendship for her and I was determined to get it right.

Providentially, Happy had written down some very specific instructions, including that if she went into a coma, we should wait a week before making a decision. After only a few days though, her father, the ethics counselor at the hospital, and even some of the nurses, all felt it was time to take her off the machines. We had several heated discussions. As the sole decision-maker, the pressure on me was intense.

Fortunately, her personal doctor, who had treated Happy for years, thought we should wait. So did all of Happy’s friends.

Late in the evening of the fifth night of the coma, my wife Ann and I, Happy’s sister, and a few close friends, went to the chapel to pray, asking God for a clear answer about whether to stop the life support.

About midnight, a great peace descended. We had our answer. It was time to let her go.

As we were heading for the ICU to inform the doctor of our decision, Happy’s sister asked if we could wait until morning so that Happy’s father could be with her at the end. It had taken so long to get clarity, though, that I didn’t want to let the moment slip away. But I couldn’t say no. I am a father. If it were my daughter, I would want to be there.

Ann and I went back to the hotel to get a few hours’ rest. We were sound asleep at 3:00 a.m. when the hospital called. Happy had come out of her coma. As I hung up the phone I saw that Ann, who is the most grounded person I know, had an extraordinary look on her face.

“I just saw Happy,” she said. “It wasn’t like a dream. She was wearing her bathrobe, standing right there.” Ann pointed to a spot not far from our bed.

“Happy kept saying, ‘You should have gotten it done. You should have gotten it done,’” Ann told me.
Her words were like a knife to my heart. I should have gotten it done. We all knew at midnight that the time had come. I felt I had failed in the responsibility Happy had given me.

We spent most of that day huddled around her bedside, watching Happy breathe on her own. She even spoke a few words—mostly just getting her bearings, trying to figure out where she was and what had happened. Once again she had defied the odds. But it was going to be a tough road to recovery.

The next morning at 3:00 a.m., once again we were awakened by a call from the hospital. This time, Happy was dying—fast. We rushed over, but after four hours she was still holding on. Her father and stepmother were by her bed. Happy seemed at peace, and I felt my part was done. I was so exhausted I could hardly keep my eyes open.

I went back to the chapel. As soon as I sat down I fell fast asleep. The next thing I knew, the loudspeaker in the chapel was blaring “Code Blue in room 321! Code Blue!” That was not Happy’s room number, and she was definitely a “No Code” patient (meaning “Do Not Resuscitate”), but in my stupor I thought they were announcing that Happy was dying.

I ran from the chapel and fell in line behind a doctor rushing to respond to the code. He swiped his identity card on the ICU door and I slipped in behind him. As soon as he was inside, the doctor realized he was in the wrong room and rushed out again.

A minute or two after I arrived, Happy took her last breath. Her father was there, and with tears streaming down his face he said to her again and again, “You go to heaven now. You go to heaven now.”

Happy’s passing was one of the most beautiful, peaceful experiences of my life. Such a feeling of holiness! I wept with gratitude at the privilege of being with her in those last moments.

Earlier that day the nurses offered to put an oxygen mask on Happy. Her sister immediately said, “Yes.” Gently I reminded her that we had decided not to interfere anymore with the process of dying. So the answer was “No.”

Happy had chided me, through Ann, for not acting immediately to take her off life support when the guidance was clear. But just denying the oxygen was so difficult. I felt Happy’s last act of friendship was to choose the moment of her death, thus sparing me from making the decision for her.