Living or Dying on Her Terms

Martha Mabey

In 2015, Martha had chest pains, which led her to the hospital for an MRI, two CT scans and massaging of her carotid arteries. She was diagnosed with a split aorta with an aneurysm. Aneurysms can remain silent, but they can be fatal if they rupture. No one could tell Martha if the aneurysm was newly formed or if she had lived with it for some time.
Martha is an energetic and active woman in her late 70s. She has many passions, including writing, spending time with her daughter and interacting with her friends. For Martha, quality of life is paramount. Also, her sister had a brain aneurysm and never recovered from that surgery.
Martha’s heart surgeon considered her situation terminal, and told Martha she would die if she didn’t have the surgery. Martha’s friend, who was in the hospital room with her, called Martha’s primary care doctor, with whom Martha had a very good relationship.
Martha’s primary care doctor and the heart surgeon spoke. Martha’s primary care doctor asked if she was in any pain. The surgeon responded no. Her doctor then asked the surgeon, “Have you had a patient like this, who you wanted to operate on and they weren’t in pain?” The response was no. Her primary care doctor suggested holding off on making a decision until he could follow up with Martha, and then the two doctors could talk again.
Martha’s primary care doctor did not think surgery was the best option. Martha was active and was not in pain. There was a risk she could die on the operating table or experience complications from surgery. And he knew that Martha feared ending up incapacitated like her sister.


“Patients need to be strong enough to ask their doctors why they need a specific treatment or surgery.”


Martha has a full understanding of the benefits and burdens of her test and treatment options. She read a lot about the condition and consulted with a doctor who specializes in aortic conditions. He agreed with the first heart surgeon but was also understanding of Martha’s priorities. Instead of surgery, she takes blood pressure medicine daily and carefully monitors her blood pressure. She does not see a cardiologist.


For Martha, it’s important to have freedom to move around and drive her car short distances, to have good enough health to regularly interact with her friends, to have enthusiasm and be involved in new projects, and to always be learning and have vitality for life.

About Martha Mabey

Martha’s love of writing, art and education have overlapped all her professional life as the head of the Richmond Montessori School (three times!), the owner of two art galleries (in Richmond, Virginia, and Biloxi, Mississippi), and the author of five books: two novels (The Anointing and Artists Die Best in Black, which was made into a movie released in 2015), a biography of Mexican artist Rodolfo Morales (El Señor de los Suenos), a medical memoir of George Meyerhoff, MD (The Last Doctor in America), and the history of the Gulfport Yacht Club (Committed to Sail). She has also written for magazines in Virginia, Mississippi and Mexico, and was the art critic for the Richmond Times Dispatch and theater critic for the Mississippi Sun Herald. She lived for several years in Oaxaca and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and most recently in Biloxi and Richmond. Martha holds a PhD from the University of Illinois, and is currently writing a history of the Richmond Montessori School.