The first day I set foot in a hospital as a student nurse, one of our patients died. A group of us huddled together in his hospital room discussing the proper method for giving a bed bath—head to toe, front to back, bottom last. As the assigned student rolled the patient on his side to wash his back, I noticed his pale skin had taken on a tinge of blue. I mentioned it to my classmate, who removed a glove to touch his cooling skin, and fumbled in a mounting panic for his wrist and absent pulse.
At the foot of the bed, a medical chart revealed an orange sticker with the letters DNR stamped in black. Do Not Resuscitate. We called in the Real Nurse, who ushered us out of the room with profuse apologies, and the staff took over from there. I went home full of questions, wondering at what point the patient passed away, why his family was absent, and why God allowed him to die in a room full of strangers discussing the merits of washing private parts front to back.
Shortly after beginning a job on a general medical unit, I arrived at work to find my assignment included a patient the doctors expected to die before the end of my shift. Memories of my student experience rushed back, and I prayed both of us would make it through the next eight hours. I entered the room to find it cramped with loved ones surrounding the bed of an elderly man who gulped air as if swallowing life itself. A familiar orange sticker blinked up at me from his medical chart.
The next four hours were some of the most painful and holy I’ve ever known. Love and fear filled that room. So did whispers and coffee and the sound of a wild-eyed man struggling to breathe. Fully alert, but unable to speak, he motioned for the family to step out when he knew his next breath may be his last. With the family minister still on his way to the hospital, I took a few moments in the quiet to hold my patient’s hand. I felt his fear to my core. My voice shook as I bent low and whispered, “Have you made your peace with God, John?”
He couldn’t answer.
The minister arrived shortly before John passed, and I don’t know what transpired between them. After John died, the family returned for one last goodbye. I sat at the nurse’s station blinking back tears. I felt every bit the failure...because what can one speak of a holy and good God to a man who fears seeing Him face to face? What does one do to heal the left-behind, the grieving? Warm drinks from the bereavement cart can’t revive the dead in body or in spirit, and this was no Lazarus moment.
I felt sick with failure for days, arriving at work a week later to find a box of chocolates on the break room table. On top, addressed to me, sat a card from John’s family. I read their note of thanks and felt like I could breathe for the first time in a week, realizing that at times we all need to be brought back to life.