For a dying woman, living was the best medicine

Photo: Driving Miss Norma Facebook page.

Norma Bauerschmidt has died at age 91.

Bauerschmidt, of Michigan, became an online celebrity thanks to her daughter-in-law’s Facebook page, Driving Miss Norma, which started over a year ago after she was diagnosed with uterine cancer, her daughter-in-law wrote.

A tiny woman at 101 pounds and under five-feet tall, an exhausted Norma looked the young doctor dead in the eye and with the strongest voice she could muster, said, “I’m 90-years-old, I’m hitting the road.”

The doctor and the confused first-day medical student who was shadowing him looked at Tim (her son) and me (her daughter-in-law, Ramie) for some clarification.

We had had time to talk to Norma beforehand about the likelihood that there would be some bad news coming from the doctor. She made it VERY clear to us that she had no interest in any treatment. We “got it” and were in complete support of her decision.

But what next? We couldn’t imagine leaving her in a nursing home, especially after walking down the long halls of the local Tender Care to visit Leo in the last room on the right, reserved by Hospice for the dying. No way.

There is also no way she could live at home alone without Leo. They were truly a well-oiled team of 67 years.

Having recently read Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (please put this on your reading list) our best idea was to take her on the road with us. Norma currently is not in pain, her mind is sharp, she loves to travel, and she is remarkably easy to be around.

We explained to the well-meaning doctor and his student that we live in an RV and that we would be taking her wherever she wanted to go. He didn’t hesitate to say, “RIGHT ON!” We asked if he thought us irresponsible for this approach. His reply was telling.

“As doctors,” he said, “we see what cancer treatment looks like every day: ICU, nursing homes, awful side effects. Honestly, there is no guarantee she will survive the initial surgery to remove the mass. You are doing exactly what I would want to do in this situation. Have a fantastic trip!”

Meanwhile, the medical student stood discreetly by the exam room door taking it all in. Until that point she had spent her first day working with pregnant women (the waiting room was filled with them) all thinking about the beginning of life, not the end.

The look on her face during our conversation indicated she had just received the education of a lifetime.

So this is what they don’t teach you in medical school .

Norma died on Friday, following a year of living.

Photo: Ramie Liddle

Her daughter-in-law says they knew traveling around the country would work when they stopped near the Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minn.

“She stood in front of this Jolly Green Giant with her hands on her hips, just like his pose was, and made the funniest face for this photo. And I had never seen her really smile before that. Ever,” Liddle tells the Washington Post.

“When you look back at our wedding pictures, and she was not smiling in our wedding pictures. She always said ‘Oh, I don’t take a good picture’ and ‘don’t take my photo’ and then she just turned into this kind of ham,” Liddle added. “And from that point on, I thought, ‘okay, if she’s up for that, then we’re going to have some fun.’ ”

Photo: Ramie Liddle

Browse the photos of her last days and you’ll question your life’s priorities.