(Excerpt from my published article)
I remember when I was still untouched by death-when I was a child who believed in immortality and invincibility. It all changed when I became a nurse and came face to face with the harsh realities of death. Suddenly, the finality of it forced me to see us as the mortals we are. I dealt with my patients’ dying by maintaining a “qué será será” attitude. It didn’t mean losing my humanity; it didn’t mean that I cared less for my patients. It just meant survival for me in a profession that sees a lot of suffering and death.
Until Mr. C came to the ED to die.
It was a warm spring day, and on Bed 3 Mr. C lay dying. Brain cancer with metastases-and the devastation of the disease was finally taking its toll on his 80-year-old body. He was unconscious, but a single tear clung to his right eyelashes.
The ED staff knew him as one of our “frequent fliers.” He liked to be called “Abuelo”-Grandpa. He was always pleasant, even when he was in pain. His wife, Rosa, was a proud and feisty woman, and a bit protective of her husband. She used to complain to hospital administration that we were slow in giving him pain medication. “Why can’t you give him more attention?” she grumbled.
Now, Rosa sat with hunched shoulders at the bedside. She looked tired and resigned. Her face reflected her fears; her eyes, unspoken misery.
The cardiac nurse told me that the family had signed the DNR papers. Marco, the couple’s only child, stood vigil on the opposite side of the bed, gently caressing his father’s wrinkled forehead. His face was in agony, but I sensed a quiet strength within him. He would need it now.
I tried to leave to give the family some privacy, but Rosa held on to me with her other hand. “We’ve said our good-byes. Now I’m letting him go. He wants to die in peace. We’re all ready now.” Rosa’s voice quivered. I nodded because I knew that Marco had reconciled with his father four months ago after a long estrangement.
I removed the intravenous line and the foley catheter as per the family’s request. We all stared in silence at the flickering cardiac monitor, mesmerized by the even graceful strokes. Sinus bradycardia … pulse 50 and thready. BP steadily going down … now barely palpable at 70 systolic … respirations shallow. Abuelo was at the threshold.
The numbers held our attention. Heart rate 40 … 34 … 29 … then asystole. The ED resident shook her head. A gasp escaped from Marco, and Rosa broke into sobs. I stood transfixed as a life ebbed away and the single tear rolled down Abuelo’s cheek.
His face stunned me. I expected to see suffering, but instead I marveled at a face that in death looked peaceful, almost ethereal. He died in peace, surrounded by love.
Rosa hugged and kissed her husband of 50 years. I tried to say something that I knew would comfort no one but me, but there was a lump in my throat. I just hugged her and we cried together for this wonderful man whose life had made such a difference. “Thank you for everything,” Rosa finally said. Mother and son then walked away to begin a new life, and I said a silent prayer for the family.
I remember them to this day, several years later. I hope that their memories of togetherness sustained them through their grief. And I’m thankful that it was a quiet day in the ED, and that I had time to listen and to grieve. From them, I learned what strength there is in just letting go.
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