When the head and heart conflict

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The process of nearing life's end teaches us to go with the heart over the head.

By Guest Blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart

What do you do when your logical mind tells you one thing, but your emotional heart tells you another?  How do you decide when your feelings are in conflict with your intellect? The mind/heart dichotomy has always been interesting to me.

I am fairly logical. I like to know the facts. I look to the data. Very often, the facts influence my feelings. The data inform my heart. But sometimes I let my heart trump the logic.

I have been living at an in-patient hospice facility for more than two months. I have been very comfortable here. The nurses, health aids, and volunteers are all terrific. I have watched the other residents as they decline. Some have died. Most need special care around the clock. They need assistance with bathing, dressing, and even eating.

I have had some major ups and downs with pain, but overall, I’m not really any worse than the day I moved in. I manage to walk to the coffee machine twice a day to get some great coffee and a little bit of exercise.  I only need my walker or cane for longer walks. I even swim once a week; I usually do a third of a mile. I haven’t lost much weight. My medications have not changed since I arrived. I make my own bed. No one helps me with eating, dressing, or bathing. I am completely independent. I even count out, order, and take my own meds without any supervision.

When you come to a hospice, it seems that your job is to die. But I really haven’t been doing my job! I keep telling people, “I’m just not dying fast enough!”

Several nurses have told me, “You don’t really belong here.”

So finally, my family decided I should have another CAT scan done. We thought an updated CAT scan would give support to our “hunch” that perhaps the cancer growth actually slowed down a bit. We thought it would give an explanation for why I am still alive all these months, so much longer than what was originally predicted.

We were dead wrong. (Yes, pun intended!)

My doctor said that if he didn’t know about me and my high-functioning activity level, he would say that this CAT scan indicates I might have another week to live. Maybe a few weeks. Perhaps a month at the most.

According to the CAT scan, I was in terrible shape! Awful shape! The cancer was surrounding my last bile duct, ready to pounce!

So why is it just sitting there--and not yet pouncing? The doctor had no explanation. He was “ecstatic and amazed.” I was unlike any patient he had ever had. If he had treated me all year, and this were the result, he would be receiving all kinds of praise for such a success! In August 2009, I was told I had six months to live. I endured one chemo-embolization procedure in September, which took a painful two-month recovery time. After that, I decided not to pursue any other treatment, yet here I am, more than a year later, still living. Still not declining.

I asked my doctor, “What would you do if you were in my situation?”

I wondered, What does he do when logic tells him one thing, but his feelings tell him something else? 

According to the logic and the medical technology, things are grim. I will be dying really soon.

But how do I feel? Like things are fine. I will be swimming really soon.

I fully expected my doctor to be logical and go with the data. He’s an interventional radiologist, a person whose life is all about interpreting CAT scans and PET scans and performing delicate surgical procedures based on their images and information.

Again, I was dead wrong. (Again, pun intended!)

My doctor suggested that we ignore the CAT scan and go with how I feel!

He said I didn’t belong in a hospice. He said that despite the CAT scan, I’m still living, and not quite dying yet. He said if I wanted to go back home to Milwaukee, to live under my own roof, and sleep in my own bed, and see my friends again, he would recommend that I do it!

I was so surprised!

I talked with my brothers, my sons, my friends. I expected many of them to focus on the CAT scan and advise me to stay put. After all, I am still seriously ill. I could die any day now. I am already living in the place where people go to die.

But mostly, they just asked me, “What would make you most happy?”

That’s an easy question. The answer is, “Going to Milwaukee!”

So that’s what I am doing. When faced with the logical/emotional dilemma, this time, I am going with the emotional.

It might be logical to remain in a hospice facility, since my CAT scan reveals the picture of a very sick liver.

But these end-of-life decisions are quite personal. All my friends, everyone in my family, and the staff and volunteers at this wonderful hospice facility have all told me the same thing: Now is the time to do what makes me happy, what brings me comfort. More than ever before, “It’s all about me!”

What could be more emotional than that?

I was raised to be logical. I was trained to think through my decisions. And yet, along with the medical community who has been following my case for more than a year, we are going with our feelings. And I would have to admit, it feels right!

And when it comes to something so personal, how could I be dead wrong?


Guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart is the director of Tomorrow's Present and an author and speaker on youth leadership. Read more about her interfaith youth program in Student Teachers, from January 2006.

Lisa was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. For more on her story, see "The dying wish of a youth ministry pioneer." You can also read Lisa's personal blog Dying to Know You Better. Her blog posts on USCatholic.org can be found at Final Thoughts.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.