A parting gift from my grandfather

Recently, I began to think of death as a friend. My grandfather was hospitalized on Mother’s Day, and by the time my parents called me on Monday morning they couldn’t tell me anything more than, “He’s in the ICU with multiple seizures. They’re taking him off ventilation tomorrow.” Reaching for the knowledge I’ve spent all year chipping away at textbooks to acquire, I asked about neurologic exams, autonomic drugs and heart conditions I knew he was at risk for.

“I don’t know, Little Doctor,” my mother kept saying, reminding me that none of these words were a part of the conversation for family. A day later, sitting with my family in the hospital room, I realized the real conversation was about peace, humor and love. My family wasn’t fighting death because they could see it already in Poppa. Poppa’s ribs were broken from CPR earlier that week, his breath came in hard-earned gasps and his blood pressure hovered around 80/44.

Alternately fascinated with the activity of his accessory respiratory muscles and heartbroken at the image of my stepdad standing at the side of Poppa’s bed, resting his hand protectively on his father’s forehead, I thought about how death has a presence. There wasn’t a single one of us in that room who wasn’t certain Poppa was going to leave us in a matter of moments.

I sat quietly in the back of the room watching our broken old man who looked so little like the jolly Poppa I had gotten to know over the past 10 years. If this is what patients look like in the ICU — barely human anymore — I wondered how I would have tried to relate to them on my rotation if I hadn’t first been to the ICU with my own loved one.

The answer came the next day, at our open-casket wake. Poppa looked like himself again. This is how I will remember him, resting peacefully, almost ready to sit up and tell us another joke. I still can’t believe how the coroners reinfused my grandfather’s body with his personality after it had been stripped away during his medical emergencies.

Aside from the memories and family that Poppa gave me, I’m so thankful that his parting gift to me was helping me understand how dehumanizing the ICU can be. I hope that when I go to clinics in a year, I’ll remember the difference between the man I knew and the man I saw on a hospital bed.

Natalia Birgisson is a medical student who blogs at Scope, where this article originally appeared.

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  • http://www.amerechristian.com/ Ron Smith

    Hi, Natalia.

    Very good post.

    As I am about to start my 32nd year in Pediatricis, I have to tell you from my perspective, that death is no friend. I’ve seen my share of neonates as well as small children and adolescents pass on.

    In EOPC, the Eastern Oklahoma Perinatal Center in Tulsa, the mortality rate was 30%. I still remember the names of some of the Michelle D. spent most of her three years there…before she passed on. Of course several years later, and my fortunate work with the first synthetic lung surfactants saw a remarkable downturn in neonatal mortaility and lung-related morbidity.

    Regardless, death and illness to me are not only stenches, but a downright shame, as in the shame of our human condition, both physical and spiritual.

    No doubt you will win many victories, and though we should never give up the fight, death is the shameful winner in the end unless we can believe in something more than ourselves and our abilities. We must run the long race here to win.

    I’m sorry for your loss. I think I can empathize. We lost our 24 year old daughter in circumstances just as bad in 2012. She had a lifelong congenital medical problem and was never developmentally more than 3 to 6 months.

    Warmest regards,

    Ron Smith, MD
    www (adot) amerechristian (adot) com

  • lotzakids

    I’m glad you got this experience. My youngest is a frequent flyer in our local PICU. His lungs are compromised and rhinovirus demands the ICU vent with high oxygen flow. Social workers suggest to parents in our hospital that we put up pictures of our kids when they’re healthy and happy as a reminder that they do have a life, and a good one at that, when they’re not lying sick in the hospital. Something you might be able to suggest to your patient’s families. Because each patient has a history, a life. They’re not just the “pneumonia in bed 23.”

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