The best birthday gift for my mother

Hospice careMy mother just had her 78th birthday. She doesn’t know it though.

If I or anyone told her, she still wouldn’t know it. She’s past the point of understanding or caring.

Earlier this year, Sandra Kay Sheets, ravaged by an untold number of strokes, entered hospice. Now, three nice nurses monitor her all day. They bathe her, change her bedding, administer pain medication and feed her three squares daily. Or try to; Mom loses interest in food after one spoonful.

In the evenings, she picks gingerly at the edges of her bed sheet and mumbles about distant memories, though from what I can interpret, those memories involve times when she was young and vibrant and happy.

She is among the estimated 1.7 million people nationwide who receive hospice care, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. However large that number sounds, it’s double from a decade ago as palliative care expanded beyond its original intent of serving terminal cancer sufferers to include patients diminished by other diseases.

My mother entered those statistics because she was in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers after her initial attacks, with varying success. Her health trended up and down, but never improved enough for her to regain a clear perception of the world around her. My uncle and I, who share legal responsibility for her care, began measuring her status by the number of moments we thought she knew who we were.

That number is down to the low single digits.

“Hospice care is designed to address the needs of the entire family,” writes Sheryl M. Ness, a nurse educator specializing in end-of-life care, in a blog for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “The focus of hospice care isn’t to treat or cure the underlying disease, but to provide the highest quality of life for whatever time remains.”

Because of that, more dementia sufferers continue entering hospice. By 2011, cancer diagnoses constituted just 33.7 percent of all hospice admissions, with dementia topping the list of non-cancer diagnoses at almost 13 percent of the whole, according to NHPCO findings.

“As the average life span in the United States has increased, so has the number of individuals who die of chronic progressive diseases that require longer and more sustained care,” the NHPCO says in its 2012 analysis of hospice care nationwide.

At first, I resisted putting my mother in hospice, her health decline notwithstanding. For one thing, “hospice” is synonymous with “terminal” in our culture, and I wasn’t ready to ascribe that term to her condition.

For another, I, like most everyone, was inculcated to believe that “cure” and “care” were synonymous, too, and that both extended across the breadth and depth of modern medicine.

But then I witnessed the exhaustion among overworked doctors and nurses at hospitals and the relentless workload at understaffed rehabilitation facilities along each step of my mother’s treatment. I realized then that “cure” and “care” can be exclusive of one another where cost, time and patience force a choice.

So, my mother reposes in a place devoted to her needs, such as they are. She can’t move, so the nurses move her to prevent bedsores. The nurses change the TV channels for her, brush her hair, talk to her, tuck in the stuffed gray kitten I bought because it resembled her own cat.

Her express respite care instructions, dictated by her when she was clear-minded and accepting of the likely course her condition would take, discourage much else.

When I visited her last, my mother looked through me to the reality she selected. At various times, I was her son, her brother, her uncle. One afternoon, she worried about the state of her wedding dress. Another afternoon, she worried about the cleanliness of an outfit I was supposed to wear in a parade.

It took me awhile to realize she was talking about a parade I was in at age 5.

I indulged her and said not to worry; the outfit was clean and ready. She said “OK,” then settled into sleep.

For this birthday, peace of mind was the best gift I could give.

__________

Update: Sandra Kay Sheets died Aug. 20 of complications from a series of strokes.

KMOV: Setting a bad example

KMOV logoFrom the first day of my course in basic journalism at Lindenwood University last semester, I hammered into my students’ heads the importance of accuracy in reporting.

It was an essential part of my lectures, my assignments and my grading system ― so much so that the students were ordered to supply me with contact information for the sources in each of their stories. Any detail they cited had to be referenced, and that reference had to have an email address or phone number attached for me to verify.

If doubt trumped veracity, their grades suffered. Heavily.

“Accuracy is at the core of your credibility,” I said and posted in a PowerPoint presentation. “Subtract that and you’re less of a journalist, less of a professional.”

I wonder now if I should extend a formal invitation to the reporting staff of KMOV-TV to take my course. Because recent events involving the CBS affiliate have put into question its appreciation of accuracy in reporting.

The first event, profiled here last month, involved former KMOV news anchor Larry Conners, who stirred protest and scuttled his job by alleging via Facebook that the Internal Revenue Service was harassing him because of an interview in April 2012 with President Barack Obama that Conners believed put the president on the defensive.

Conners admitted in the Facebook post he had no proof but neglected to mention that his issues with the IRS went back at least four years before the interview. The station soon fired Conners, accusing him of harboring bias and dragging KMOV’s name through his speculation.

Conners insists he was just doing his job. He’s busy now however leveling another accusation, having filed a discrimination suit against KMOV on a peripheral matter.

Event No. 2 blew through Twitter on Friday evening as tornadic winds bounded between St. Charles and St. Louis, followed by a flood of tweets saying KMOV had reported on television around 8:30 that a “mass casualty” event involved a storm-wrecked hotel in the storm’s path.

The phrase echoed ominously across social media as the Twitterverse awaited a citable source from KMOV confirming the destruction. No other news provider offered similar reports or alternate confirmation, and at least one wondered openly where KMOV was getting its information. Meanwhile, social media watchers said KMOV kept repeating the frightening words on the air.

KMOV began backing away from its initial televised report about 30 minutes later, but not before changing the location of destruction and leaving St. Louis County authorities and representatives of the hotels that were named to assuage fears via their own social media. By then, the storm seemed secondary on Twitter to KMOV’s own hasty, alarming damage assessment.

Twitterers continued hurling brickbats at the station well into the next day. Even social media maven Andy Carvin of National Public Radio weighed in.

“Yet another twitter rumor spread because of poor initial reporting by mainstream media,” he tweeted Saturday.

Though KMOV never explained itself, the initial report of mass storm casualties was thought to be inspired by a vague understanding of dialog emanating from a police scanner ― historically, an unreliable source for factual information. You would think KMOV already knew this.

“Police reporters depend on sources in the department and on their knowledge of police procedure for their stories,” wrote educator Melvin Mencher in his college text “News Reporting and Writing,” now in its 12th edition. He later added that, “Sins of omission occur when the journalist fails to act in situations in which revelation is required. … More often, the omission is the result of laziness or ignorance.”

A group effort by Fred Fedler, John R. Bender, Lucinda Davenport and Michael R. Drager titled “Reporting for the Media” reiterates this point.

“If reporters lack some information, they should consult their sources again,” the authors wrote. “Reporters should never guess or make assumptions about the facts. … Conscientious news organizations check their stories’ accuracy.”

And former newspaper editor Tim Harrower devotes a portion of his own popular textbook, “Inside Reporting: A Practical Guide to the Craft of Journalism,” to covering accidents and disasters. Intrinsic to this kind of journalism: confirming before reporting.

“No matter how useful the Internet may be, it’s no substitute for reality ― for real discussions with real human beings,” Harrower wrote.

All of these texts have been around at least 10 years and are staples of journalism education. It’s hard to imagine that anyone at KMOV who studied journalism hasn’t read one, or read one like them.

But if they haven’t, the Boston Marathon bombings offered a contemporary lesson as twitterers latched onto police scanner reports of the manhunt for the bombing suspects, and ensuing urban lockdown, and quoted like gospel every snatch of detail and garbled bit of dialog.

“Any reporter who was trained in an honest-to-goodness newsroom knows this much: The police scanner is a blunt instrument, not a source of solid facts,” wrote Curt Woodward in Cognoscenti, assessing the manhunt’s impact. “… The stuff being said over those airwaves is definitely real. But it isn’t necessarily true.

“Civilians can be forgiven for not knowing this. But professional journalists? Yikes,” he continued. “If you care about your audience, you don’t report what you hear coming over the scanner, without confirming it first.”

True, the proximity of Conners’ situation and KMOV’s storm reporting were too close to be anything but coincidence. Still, the dual social media failures imply a pattern of behavior, a misunderstanding about the importance, relevance and sensitivity of social media usage in news reporting.

So, I welcome staffers at KMOV to sit in on my classes next semester, particularly the one where we discuss how best to use tools such as Facebook and Twitter, and review how the station can start setting a better example. Or, I can lend them the textbooks; I have all three.

Or, maybe I’ll just have one of my students explain it to them.