What man’s best friend taught me during a patient’s death

Years ago in a 15-bed acute medical-surgical ICU, the nursing supervisor contacted me about a special assignment. Once I knew what it was, I said, “Absolutely.”

We were about to admit a patient in his 40s with end-stage AIDS/HIV. He asked to be a DNR, but his MD wanted to admit him to the ICU for close monitoring. But the patient had a special request. Even with IV antibiotics and pain medication running through his veins, Mr. Sam Smith just wanted one thing — his Yorkshire Terrier named Charlie. This dog that was found in a dumpster behind a grocery store was Mr. Smith’s best friend. They were always together, Charlie a few steps behind his human companion.

After Sam was admitted to ICU, I made sure he was comfortable, relaxed and pain-free. Friends came to visit, and one brought Charlie who wagged his tail and proceeded to lick Sam’s face. What a grand reunion.

I introduced myself to Sam and Charlie and watched the both of them throughout the night always making sure Sam had a blanket and his buddy was tucked in right next to him. Charlie cuddled up to his owner and slept peacefully through the night.

At 0300, I had to draw labs, and Charlie looked up at me as if to say, “Hey! Don’t hurt my master.” I explained to the dog, as if he were human, that I had to collect blood from his friend so I could get some information on his care. Charlie calmed down a little, but he was still staring at me.

Then I realized that this dog was probably thirsty. I filled up a styrofoam cup with water and gave it to him. He lapped it up and then turned to me and licked my forearm. I knew then that he was aware I was there to help both of them through this strange, sad passage of life.

Sam’s other friends would come in and out to take Charlie for walks outside where Charlie would sniff the flowers, do his “duty” on a few bushes, bark at the birds, then come back to the ICU to resume watch for his very favorite friend, rescuer, and caregiver.

Within two days, Sam became progressively lethargic, somnolent and nonverbal. His breathing became slower and slower. His family and friends were now at his bedside telling stories of Sam and Charlie. They laughed, and they cried as they told story after story of the wonderful, amazing adventures of Sam and Charlie.

Carlie was fully aware that Sam was dying. As they told stories, Charlie remained snuggled up to Sam. He licked his master on the cheek and resumed his position … right beside Sam’s heart.

After four slow, irregular breaths, Sam let out his last breath.

To say that our entire ICU staff and physicians alike were crying buckets would be an understatement.

But to say that Sam had a tragic ending would be wrong. He chose to die with his family, friends and best friend Charlie right by his side.

That night, I learned that there are words with special meanings, like compassion, friendship, and dedication.

And a small dog named Charlie taught me what unconditional love means and that death is a continuation of life.

We don’t live forever, but our memories do.

Keep love in your heart, and you will live forever.

Charlie went home with his other caregiver — Sam’s partner.

Debbie Moore-Black is a nurse who blogs at Do Not Resuscitate.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

View 5 Comments >

Most Popular

Get KevinMD's 5 most popular stories.