I work for twenty-four hours at a time, responding to the trauma and code beeper, doing purposeful rounding on all of the units, receiving referrals and requests, and following up with ongoing situations. It is
A recent one brought death.
I had been asleep for about an hour when the beeper shrieked. A Level One Trauma was coming in, and it was yet another older person who had fallen, sustaining an injury to his head. And this one didn't even happen outside in the ice.
My role is to support the family; in this case, the wife who was in the waiting room with the next-door neighbor, the kind of guy anyone would wish to have for a next-door neighbor. I introduced myself and explained that since her husband had been brought in as a trauma, the protocol called for me to attend; she shouldn't read anything more than that into my presence. We became acquainted and when she told me that her husband had had a heart attack two years earlier and had been on a blood thinner ever since, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach.
Soon the chief resident came out and confirmed what I'd feared. The gentleman had sustained a massive intra-cranial bleed, he was on a ventilator for assistance with breathing, and would not survive surgery if it were attempted. Betty would need to make some decisions and the situation was complicated. Her daughter was six or seven hours away, her son across the ocean, and her husband's son at least twenty-four hours away. Would they want to come to see him? Should he be admitted to the MICU for 24-48 hours so that people could travel in? Or would it be better to stay in the ER and remove the ventilator? Only a few hours earlier the man had been joking with the neighbor about the ice on their shared driveway.
Many phone calls were made and, regrettably, many messages were left on voice mails. Betty's pastor was out-of-town, and it became my task to help her try to think clearly, to take into consideration her husband's wishes, what she wanted, and what the children might prefer. Ultimately she decided that the right thing would be to submit to the inevitable and remove the life support.
It took about twenty minutes after that for the gentleman's heart to stop. It was a slow and gradual process, and those famous words came into my mind: "Do not go gentle into that good night." He did go gently; death came quietly and slipped him away. Together Betty and I asked for the courage to entrust him to God's merciful care. I'd been with Betty for just three hours; when we parted, I felt as though I'd known her -- and her husband -- for many years.
Some hours later, I was called to a patient's room. The occupant had died a few hours earlier and his daughter was at the bedside, waiting for the funeral home people to come for him. Their religion required this. I chose to sit with her for the better part of an hour. She told me that his death had also been gradual and gentle; nothing to fear. She told me, "It is an honor to sit here with his body." And I told her it had been my privilege to sit there with her.
It was a difficult shift, but a meaningful one. Two women, both in very intimate stages of life -- and death -- had allowed me to share their experience, to offer support, to remind them of God's love. I'll never see either of them again, but they will be with me always.