Bonnie Louise McPherson and her sister Virginia Lee Thomas had exciting plans just a few weeks ago.* They were preparing for a move to Seattle Washington. Virginia would visit first, see if the jobs available suited her, check real estate prices and get a feel for the place. If everything looked good, she would sell her house and relocate, helping her chronically ill sister Bonnie to move also. They had resolved their past differences in the last several years and had become very close. Knowing Bonnie did not have much time left before heart disease killed her, Virginia would not consider leaving her sister behind.
Both sisters suffered from seasonal depression but felt revitalized by the excitement and adventure of their planned relocation. Before she could make her trip, Virginia wanted to get her planned gallbladder surgery out of the way. She knew she would feel more comfortable having the surgery in the hospital she’d worked at for many years, with doctors and nurses she knew and trusted. She also knew there were risks with any surgery but was confident that everything would be all right. The date of her surgery was May 23, 1990. Tragically, through no fault of the surgeon, she went into convulsions after the respirator tube had been removed in the recovery room. She stopped breathing. Immediately nurses tried to replace the respirator tube and open her airway but the violence of her convulsions made that difficult. It took five minutes to restore her breathing but she lapsed into a coma as a result of oxygen deprivation. The doctors and nurses viewed Virginia as part of their large family and did their best to discover what caused this tragedy. Unfortunately they never did discover the cause, nor did the specialists they brought in from other cities. Finally, on May 28, Virginia was released from her coma by death.
In the days following the surgery Bonnie kept what she already knew to be a hopeless vigil at her sister’s bedside. Bonnie was also a nurse and she knew the difference between a coma from oxygen deprivation in which all brain cells are damaged, and the more common coma caused by injury to one area of the brain. She knew that recovery was unlikely, and that if her sister regained consciousness she would no longer possess the keen intelligence and awareness she was known for before the surgery. Bonnie could not enjoy the hopes of the rest of the family, buoyed as they were by anecdotes of friends’ stories of miracle recoveries by their loved ones. She was cursed with too much knowledge and felt isolated by it. She knew she was losing her sister and was grieving the loss intensely. Her dream of a new life with her sister in Seattle was also dying. Her world had turned upside down. She thought she’d die before her sister—and now her sister was close to death.
All week Bonnie told her daughter, Tapati, about their plans and how excited Virginia had been about the move. Virginia had been increasingly depressed as she watched people she knew come to the local hospital where she worked—and die. She felt that moving to a new city would be a fresh start. Her patients would all be strangers and their deaths would not be so personally devastating. Emergency room nurses see a lot of death and severe injury and over time it begins to weigh on them. She loved emergency medicine and didn’t want to give it up so long as she wasn’t personally involved with her patients.
Throughout the week Bonnie called Tapati frequently with updates. She mentioned that she was having some chest pain herself. That was normal for her advanced stage of heart disease whenever she experienced stress. Bonnie was very upset at the efforts of other family members to extend Virginia’s life with artificial support when it was already clear that she was essentially brain dead. She and Virginia, being nurses, had talked about such situations before. She knew Virginia’s beliefs and feelings about being kept alive in a twilight world between life and death. Bonnie very much believed that it was up to her to fight for what she knew her sister would want: a dignified death rather than a bleak imitation of life.
Bonnie had death on her mind that week, her sister’s and her own. She talked a lot about what she wanted for herself when she died. She knew her mom wanted to bury her in Kahoka, Missouri. She asked her daughter to make sure that didn’t happen. Bonnie worried that no one would be able to visit her grave from so far away. Her best friend Bonny and Bonny’s family would tend to her grave if it were nearby. It would be a hardship for them to go to Kahoka with any frequency. She wanted to be buried close to them. Bonnie also expressed that after many years of a strained relationship with her own mother she had given up, saying “ I know that my mother will never love me.” Much of her life had been spent trying to finally get her mother’s attention, love and approval. Bonnie was ready to let go of that hope and seemed to finally be at peace with it.
On Saturday, May 26, 1990, the family was called to the hospital as Virginia’s condition worsened. Bonnie wasn’t feeling well, but insisted on driving herself to the hospital. She was taking more of her heart medication in response to the chest pain she was having, but the tremendous stress she had been under all week long was taking its toll. As Bonnie arrived at the hospital she was already in the throes of a heart attack. She exercised her right to refuse treatment and had put her wishes in writing before she came. Virginia lingered for two more days before joining her sister in death. Instead of the journey the two sisters had planned in life, they embarked on an entirely different journey together. It appeared as if they could not bear to be parted for long.
*The rough draft was written a few weeks following their deaths.