The antidote to death is life

I read this article and decided I had to post it on my blog. It is written by a staff nurse in a hospital, and while I have cut the article to make it shorter, do read it all the way…especially to the very last paragraph.

At my job, people die.

That’s hardly our intention, but they die nonetheless.

Usually it’s at the end of a long struggle — we have done everything modern medicine can do and then some, but we can’t save them. Some part of their body, usually their lungs or their heart or their liver, has become too frail to function. These are the “good deaths,” the ones where the family is present and knows what to expect. Like all deaths, these deaths are difficult, but they are controlled, unsurprising, anticipated.

And then there are the other deaths: quick and rare, where life leaves a body in minutes. In my hospital these deaths are “Condition A’s.” The “A” stands for arrest, as in cardiac arrest, as in this patient’s heart has all of a sudden stopped beating and we need to try to restart it.

I am a new nurse, and recently I had my first Condition A. My patient, a particularly nice older woman with lung cancer, had been, as we say, “fine,” with no complaints but a low-grade fever she’d had off and on for a couple of days. She had come in because she was coughing up blood, a problem we had resolved, and she was set for discharge that afternoon.

(She then describes the very sudden way in which the patient died in the hospital despite all attempts to save her.)

And my patient was dead. She had been dead when she fell back on the bed and she stayed dead through all the effort to save her, while blood and tissue bubbled out of her and the suction clogged with particles spilling from her lungs. Everyone did what she knew how to do to save her. She could not be saved.

I am 43. I came to nursing circuitously, following a brief career as an English professor. Often at work in the hospital I hear John Donne in my head:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.

But after my Condition A I find his words empty. My patient died looking like one of the flesh-eating zombies from “28 Weeks Later,” and indeed in real life, even in the world of the hospital, a death like this is unsettling.

What can one do? Go home, love your children, try not to bicker, eat well, walk in the rain, feel the sun on your face and laugh loud and often, as much as possible, and especially at yourself. Because the only antidote to death is not poetry, or drama, or miracle drugs, or a roomful of technical expertise and good intentions. The antidote to death is life.

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~ by irwin on November 21, 2009.

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