I work Monday through Friday nights and this week was no exception. And about the first thing I heard upon coming to work last night was that one of my favorite patients, a gentle old man who always said "thank you" for the least act of kindness, had died. Mr. S had had an x-ray earlier in the week that showed cancer had spread throughout his body and that he was beyond any hope of remission or treatment. So the decision was made to remove him from the vent and he died within a few minutes. My first duty last night was to clean up his body and take him down to the morgue where he would await transport to a funeral home.
There have been several deaths since I began working there, but this was only the second that happened on my shift and the first I was solo on taking care of. And that is the way I wanted it. I loved Mr. S - it was always a pleasure to help him. The first night I had him, I discovered that he had the disconcerting habit of sleeping with his eyes open. Thanks to the risk of aspiration he could not have anything by mouth, so it would get very dry. Everytime I went in to turn him or perform some other service, he would ask me to swab his mouth out with water with a little stick-sponge we have for that purpose. I would dip it in some nice cold water and let him suck on it a few times and he always asked for just one more. He was just so grateful for anything you did - a cool cloth on his forehead, adjusting his pillows, making sure he was getting his pain meds - it didn't matter. Every act was greeted with simple gratitude. And for a relatively small man, he had some giant feet!
I found his death to be an affront, and not just because he died but where he died. He died in a hollow place, a harsh place. It is a place that truly denies our humanity and stubbornly refuses to let us leave our mark. Every room identical and no matter how hard patients or families try to personalize them, the austere, hard formality pushes itself on your awareness. And once the superficial glaze of pictures, balloons and get-well cards are removed, it is as if that person had never been there. Had never been at all. I fight a war there every night, trying to turn the tide of inhumanity, trying to leave a mark if only for those people who will die there. To let them know that they will be remembered, that their presence lingers in a fond heart and that this place is not their end.
God's speed, Mr. S.