Death with a Stranger

I had no idea that morning in late winter that I would be changed.  That I would go to work at my first clinical site in the hospital and walk out as a different person.  But the facts of what happened have been packed away in my brain, to surface again,  at a later, and most inconvenient time.  The weight of that day sits on my chest like lead.  And I know I am different.

The patient was an older man, about 79, who had suffered a broken humerus.  He barely spoke English and throughout the procedure the head tech kept attempting to converse with him in Spanish, although we found out later the reason he could not respond is because he was actually Haitian.  Go figure.  He had broken his arm in Haiti and his son who was an x ray tech at a sister hospital had flown him to NJ so he could receive better medical care.  I often wonder if he regrets that decision given the way things played out.

He was brought down to the radiology department for some standard x rays after the surgery to hammer a rod down the shaft of the bone.  He was in pain. And he was confused.  As a clinical student it was my job to be in the room to assist in taking the x rays.  We left him on the stretcher and moved the equipment around to get the shots we needed.  It was difficult if not impossible to explain to him what was happening.  I have never heard a person make the sounds that came from the patient as we tried to move him.  He sounded more like a wounded dog than a man.

As the tech tried to set up the correct positioning, the man looked at me with frightened eyes, and I felt I had no way to comfort him.  I held his hand.  And it was me holding his hand as he went into cardiac arrest.  At first, I wasn’t aware of what was happening.  His eyes began to roll back and his breathing became shallow.  The tech saw what I had failed to see.

“Amigo. Amigo! Wake up amigo!”

No response.  Even then, I was not fully understanding the situation.  We had a Haitian speaking classmate who tried to talk to him.  At that point, I think he was too incoherent to understand, even in his own language.  The head tech rushed from the room and I heard a “Code Blue!” called over the loudspeaker.  It wasn’t until then that I realized what was happening.  This man, that I didn’t know looked at me, tightening his grip on my hand, and then he began seizing.  Some of this is just a blur even though I remember most of the rest in slow motion.  Like the feeling of diving to the bottom of the pool.  We were pushed from the room and left out in the hall.

The tech knew that we were worried, and brought those of us who wanted to see what was happening around the other side to watch through the leaded glass.  The man lay on the stretcher, gown around his waste as the doctors attempted to insert a triple lumen catheter in the groin area.  I remember feeling a profound sense of immodesty for him.  This man that I didn’t even know.  He was nearly naked, not breathing, and in a state of complete vulnerability.  I had no other thought than “at least pull his gown down.”  Seems silly now that I would be concerned with something so small when a man’s life was ebbing away.  I watched, with the tech by my side, for 45 minutes while the doctors worked on him like he was a CPR dummy.

And we were sent to lunch.  Sober.  Quiet.  We were all thinking the same thing.  There was no joking, and not much small talk.  We headed back up to our department. ” What happened to the patient?”

“Oh baby, he’s gone.”

By then, the room was clean and set back to order.  At the end of the day we were seeing other patients in the same room.  It was if a man had not passed through that veil, just hours before.  I had a nagging thought that I couldn’t shake.  They had not used paddles on the patient.  I’m humble enough to be sure that the doctors know more than I do, but it seemed that if saving his life was a possibility, the paddles would have been used.  I asked one of the techs about it.  He looked at me gently.  “Baby, he was probably already gone by the time they got down here.  But we’re a teaching hospital. So we teach.”

I felt sick. Sick because I realized that I was most likely holding his hand as he passed.  Me, a girl he never met before, while his son was a mere 10 minutes away working at another hospital.  I held his hand, while his son didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.  And sick that I had spent 45 minutes watching doctors practice on a man, who was already gone.

I was curious about the name of the hospital since it was named after a Catholic saint so I did a little research.  From what I could find, this saint acts as the chief opponent of Satan to the saving of souls at the hour of death.  I don’t know if this is true.  I would love to believe it is, because of it’s confidence, that even at the moment of death, there is hope.  What I know for certain is that God is not only just, He is merciful.  And I have hope that this stranger who held my hand as he died was shown mercy in his final hours.

I never said goodbye to him. I don’t know where he is buried.  I don’t know much about his family.  I held his hand as he said goodbye to this life and escaped into the dark and all the mysteries that lie beyond.

I packed up my backup with the day’s experience.  As I drove home, cigarette in hand to try and stop the shaking, one thought went through my head.  “I don’t understand this. Not yet. Maybe not ever. But I am different today.


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