A Nursing Story:
Everyone knows that many people go to a nursing home to spend their last days. Its no secret. One with a life ending diagnosis or slowly deteriorating status is kept as comfortable as safe as possible by the young and agile who can't comprehend that these people they are caring for were once like them. Its a weird and unimaginable thing to face mortality so head on.
Mortality becomes even more fragile and real when you are watching someone take their last few breaths.
After a long shift at work I had known one particular woman was soon to leave this world. Her alertness decreased and breathing shallowed. Every time I walked passed her room and her grieving family, who had gathered around her in this last hours, I gulped hard and thought of how just my last shift she was joking with me in her sarcastic way. How quickly things had changed.
While everyone knew she was going to pass no one knew when. You can never know when. Its such a deeply mysterious thing that is so unpredictable. Sometimes a person may hold out for one family member to say goodbye to and other times the person will wait until all the grieving family has stepped out of the room and die alone, in peace. So, I continued my shift, vigilantly watching this woman say goodbye to the world at her own pace.
As my shift ended and I handed over my patients to the incoming night nurse the slowly dying woman was still clinging to life. She looked strong and I figured that she'd at least hang on through the night if not the next day. When I arrived home I made my self a giant plate of spaghetti (of course) and sat down to enjoy it in front of the television. It was my meager attempt at unwinding so late at night.
Then my cell phone so rudely interrupted my efforts... it was work calling me.
Dear lord, what did I forget to do before I left? I wondered as I answered. The other nurse didn't waste any time and informed me rather matter-of-fact like that the woman had just died. Okay... I thought and was wondering why she was telling me this. I appreciated her letting me know, but I didn't understand why she had to call me at midnight. Such news could have waited for my next shift. Then she explained to me why she called.
There were no RNs working that evening, only LPNs (licensed practicing nurses) and by law only an RN or an MD can pronounce a person once they are deceased. I was the closest RN to the facility and the obvious person to call for the job at such an hour. While I tried to digest the bizarre request to come in and declare the woman as legally dead in the middle of the night I changed from my PJs and set my spaghetti on the counter before heading out the door. Shawn was asleep in his bed and oblivious.
Five minutes later I was back at work and walking down the darkened hallway where the residents slept soundly. Without so much as a word I nodded my head at the night nurse who thanked me for coming in, grabbed a stethoscope, and walked into the woman's room.
A dim light was on. She was laying in bed, motionless, with her hands gently folded across her midsection. I put the stethoscope in my ears and pressed the other end to her chest listening for any indication that life still ticked away inside her. Silence. Her pale, motionless face was turning blue around the lips, but her body was still warm. She had drawn her last breath. I glanced back at my watch and checked the time, being sure to make a mental note of it, and left the room bidding a mental goodbye to the woman.
After filling out a couple of pieces of paperwork required for the funeral home, who was already called and on its way, I headed back home with heavy thoughts of the unknown of death. Its hard to not think of such weighted topics at a time like that. My little peanut kicking away in my belly only compounded the irony of the evening. New life growing, old life ending, and myself balanced somewhere in between the continuum.
I never would have guessed that such a steep emotional and physical responsibility would be placed on my shoulders simply because I now have the acronym of RN after my name, but its a responsibility I accept and actually appreciate the sincerity of. The ability to definitively pronounce one's death is, in my mind, just as remarkable as being able to herald the moment of one's death.