There was once a woman whom I met for the first time when she came to the ER, on death’s door, metaphorically. I told her and her family just how seriously ill she was, and how slim the chances of survival. We all agreed on that day to take a shot at it — at survival, that is — despite lousy odds.
She went to the OR, then to ICU, on life support. Some days, her vitals were so tenuous, her heart rhythm so irregular, I was sure she would not make it to the next day. And yet, she did. And some days, on the good days, she was awake, and recognized her family, and smiled and frowned and rolled her eyes sarcastically to their comments, and everyone knew she was still there.
Through all this, her friends and family, especially her brother, they were there beside her. In every single conversation, I had with each and every one of those people, they told me about her, how compassionate, how giving, how caring, and how selfless a person she is. Even her doctor who came to visit her was visibly moved by her in that hospital bed, with her respirator, and the forest of IV poles. I can tell you it’s not every day you see a doctor coming unglued because his patient is so sick. After all, we see it all the time. One friend of hers who was there every day with her shared with me they had been friends since 5th grade; had been bridesmaids at each other’s weddings; had been together through thick and thin all those years.
It was evident this lady was special.
About six weeks into this saga, it looked as though she had turned the corner, as she had improved enough to start doing some physical therapy, and to start working with speech pathology, to get the muscles in her mouth and throat to start doing something again, having been motionless for so long. It lifted up all our spirits to hope for her, to root for her. We all imagined her pulling through this horrible illness, getting off life support, getting out of the ICU; we all looked forward to the conversations we would have with her once we could hear her voice once more.
But then the next devastating infection took hold. Her blood pressure plummeted again. Her fevers started again. The light went out of her eyes, and she became unresponsive once more. Cultures from every possible source all showed new germs, aggressive germs, germs that wouldn’t be affected by any but the most powerful antibiotics.
I sat with the family once more to share the bad news. Yes, we could ramp up all the machines again, and give her truckloads of antibiotics, but she had already been through it twice before, and now that she was six weeks down the line and so much weaker than when it all started. I told them it was impossible for her to be able to return to independent living anymore. She would stay on dialysis. She would need to stay on a respirator at night because of sleep apnea, and maybe daytime, too. She would need to be in a skilled care environment, and would definitely have global deficits of all sorts. I doubted she would be able to walk again.
And though it crushed them to have to have this discussion, they asked questions carefully and thoroughly, being sure they understood the situation. At last, they asked me about withdrawal of support. They all affirmed that this lovely lady, who always gave of herself to help others, would never want to live a life as I described would await her, if she survived.
And so it was that her care shifted from cure, to comfort. The antibiotics stopped, the tubes were removed, all except for an IV for morphine, and the respirator was disconnected. As planned, she suffered no pain, or anxiety, or fear, and she passed away with the people who loved her and whom she loved at her side.
Consider that aside from a few remarks exchanged on the first day I met her when she was delirious with septic shock, I never met her, and never really had any chance to get to know her. And yet I know that she was a remarkable woman. She showed me that the worth of a life is not in how much money a person earns, or how much she owns, but rather in the lives she has touched. The love that poured out from those many, many people in her room in her dying hours defies description. She enriched all those people’s lives, and in her final six weeks, mine as well.
We all have the ability to touch other people’s lives every day. She reminded me: Take heed what you do with that gift.
“Hope Amantine” is a surgeon who blogs at Simple Country Surgeon.
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