“Well? Did you save him?” “No. We did better than that.”
He came in pulseless. The machine performing chest compressions with the rhythmic thud, thwack, thump. His ribs heaving under the force of the compressor, keeping his heart artificially beating. The plastic tube secured in his airway forcing puffs of air to inflate his lungs. His skin slightly purple-gray, on that narrow brink between life and death. His eyes like speckled round pieces of glass, with fixed pupils, staring nowhere.
Our team was assembled, prepared, ready. We worked deftly with experienced hands, our focus and determination fueled by adrenaline, a synchronized team, we worked side by side; this was our life to save, and we were going to do everything.
But his glassy, fixed eyes spoke to me. As we regained a heartbeat, and we halted the chest compressions, and our adrenaline settled — here he lay, not out of the woods, but heart back from a standstill. His glassy eyes told me his heart was back, but his life of living was gone. The life that laughed, that smiled, that held his wife’s hand — there was no amount of life-saving measures that could bring that part of him back. We didn’t know how long ago he had stopped breathing. But it was long enough to have robbed him of his mind, his memory, of everything that made him that man his family loved.
His wife and only daughter arrived. I left him in my able teams’ hands and sat down with them. I looked them in the eyes. I told them the story of his final hour of life, from the perspective of his fighting, beating heart.
His heart was here with us, but his brain had gone too long without oxygen before we could reach him. He would never walk out of this hospital. They listened to my words. Words spinning and exploding beyond comprehension. They nodded their heads, as if to ask me to keep talking. So long as I was talking, we didn’t have to move. Tears were inevitable. It was so sudden. How could they be asked to make a decision of whether to continue with the resuscitation or to just let life walk its final march.
Yes, this was about them, but this was ultimately about him. What would he want? It is true it was sudden. It is true it is the toughest decision anyone will make. But with the return of his heartbeat, the decision to continue resuscitation is as big, as active a decision as it is to stop all aggressive measures and let him be comfortable. These are both big decisions with big paths for us to travel down. I needed them to understand that this wasn’t their decision to shoulder. It was their time to respect — in the most selfless of ways — the man they loved. To step outside themselves, slip into his shoes and honor his wishes in the greatest way possible. What would he have wanted if he saw himself in this moment? Representing him in this way is a responsibility no one cares to bear, but this final act is the biggest, most giving way they could love and honor him.
His daughter immediately said, “Oh, he would want none of this. He would want you to stop.”
They stood by his bedside. We withdrew all aggressive cares. We turned off the beeping monitors, we stopped artificially putting oxygen in his lungs, we turned off all pumps, we covered him with warm blankets, we let him be comfortable with his wife holding his hand for his final minutes, and his daughter stroking his hair.
And that’s how he left us.
Did we save his life? No we did not. Not today. We did better than that. We upheld our promise to continue to respect his wishes beyond his final breath.
Cindy Winebrenner is an emergency physician who blogs at Mom-Wife-Doctor Thoughts.
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