David Lauderdale

Lauderdale: Q&A about life and death

Ramie B. Liddle and her mother-in-law Norma Bauerschmidt at an RV park on Hilton Head Island.
Ramie B. Liddle and her mother-in-law Norma Bauerschmidt at an RV park on Hilton Head Island. Driving Miss Norma

This is about a 90-year-old lady who looked death square in the eye and chose life.

Or did she choose death?

You decide.

Norma Bauerschmidt of Michigan was diagnosed with uterine cancer two days after losing her husband, Leo, last summer. When a doctor suggested an operation, chemotherapy and radiation, Miss Norma said no thanks and hit the road.

For about six months, she’s been traveling the nation in an RV with her son, Tim Bauerschmidt, daughter-in-law, Ramie B. Liddle, and their standard poodle, Ringo.

Her story is told on the Facebook page Driving Miss Norma. Last week, she was featured on “CBS Evening News” and rode in the Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

I asked Ramie to explain this dance with life and death that has captured the nation.

Here’s what she said:

Q. What’s the core message of your trip?

A. There are so many messages that are coming up for us.

We were the family that never had the courage to bring up the “end-of-life” conversation with Tim’s parents until it was in our face. Leo died very suddenly, and Norma was faced with a health crisis simultaneously.

Norma was clear she was not going to gain quality-of-life by pursuing traditional cancer treatments and was more interested in living with us than in a nursing facility.

I don’t think that is an unusual choice; there are many people caring for their elderly parents in their homes. The difference is our home happens to have wheels.

For us it comes down to saying “yes” to living fully. The more we got her out and about, the more her health improved. She has bloomed beautifully into someone we hadn’t known before.

We have learned to never say “never.” She surprises us every day with her willingness to try new things, laugh and live in the present moment.

Q. Of all the feedback, which must be overwhelming, what general themes do you see in how America has reacted to her?

A. You are right, David! We are completely overwhelmed by the outpouring we have received, not only in America but around the world. The interesting thing is that our story seems to resonate with so many people on a variety of levels.

In addition to the thousands of invitations, media requests, well-meaning nutrition/diet advice and special-interest contingents (RVers, poodle lovers, beer and cake aficionados, etc.), there are some very clear themes.

Q. What are they?

A. The first theme includes those who have lived or are living the tough road.

This group includes: Those who are caring for their aging parents or grandparents; or have lost someone from cancer, or often the effects of cancer treatments; and those who are fighting, or have fought, the battle with cancer or any number of ugly medical issues.

Many of them wish they could have done it differently or will use this story to help them as they navigate their path. Some have regrets. Many are simply inspired to know there are options. If we had a dime for everyone who said, “I wish ...” our gas budget would be taken care of for years.

Q. But what do the real adults think?

A. The next theme consists of professionals working with end-of-life issues. This includes hospice workers, oncologists, ICU nurses, radiologists, long-term care workers, etc. They all say they see what people are put through every day in our system, and they all applaud our decision to forgo treatment and live life fully. They often declare that our path is exactly what they will do if the circumstances allow.

Q. What do everyday people think?

A. Quite possibly the biggest theme is simply thousands of well-wishers from every corner of the globe, inspired by Norma’s smile, zest for life or gumption to buck the system.

We are not entirely clear what has drawn everyone in, but it is a powerful force.

This story has crossed all boundaries. Cultural, geographic, spiritual/religious, age, socio-economic, you name it. We were surprised that young men outside the U.S. are very supportive of Norma’s journey and have written to tell her how she was able to help them put their priorities into perspective.

The most astounding fact has been there are zero negative comments on our Facebook page. Not one, out of hundreds of thousands. I haven’t been able to find that anywhere else on the Internet.

Q. It sounds good, but is any of this practical?

A. As humans, we all are faced with the end of life at some point, our own or the life of someone we care about.

I think our simple, feel-good story about Driving Miss Norma is serving as a safe conversation-starter for many. It is now the topic at break rooms, book clubs, medical school classrooms, boys and girls clubs, and dinner tables.

Tim and I happened to have read Atul Gawande’s book “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” right before this crisis hit our family.

The following quote from that book has helped us frame our approach to caring for his mom. I hope everyone I care about will take the time to read this book.

“I am leery of suggesting the idea that endings are controllable. No one ever really has control. Physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But the point is that we are not helpless either. Courage is the strength to recognize both realities. We have room to act, to shape our stories, though as time goes on, it is within narrower and narrower confines.

“A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters in everyone’s lives.”

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale