It was 10:30 pm when I entered the university hospital where I worked as a clinical assistant in the intensive care unit and received my assignment: beds 1-19. We were short staffed, so it would be a busy night.
There was a commotion down at bed 17 and the clerk told me we had a new admission from the operating room. I went down to see if the other clinical assistant needed help. The patient was young and tall; he should have been on a basketball court, not in a hospital bed. I wondered why he was here, hooked up to the ventilator, lines and drains, with doctors and nurses hovering around watching his monitors. No time for questions; the doctors needed to know his temperature and were calling for more blood immediately. As I ran down to the blood bank I was shocked as I looked at the ID sticker: Anthony, 19 years old. Was it violence, a sports injury, or some kind of accident that brought him here?
Eventually it quieted down on the unit and I had time for my question. “Lymphoma, diagnosed two days ago.” I heard, “Gastrointestinal bleed, more tests, chemo…” but my head was spinning. The following day would be my 19th birthday. As far I knew I was healthy – but this could be me. I got reports on my other 18 patients: Wyatt and Smith, swine flu; Higgins, a head bleed; Hall, motor vehicle collision; Walker, skiing accident with massive head trauma; Railey, leg amputated due to infection. The list went on, but my mind was back at bed 17. What if this were me?
That night there was endless work to do. Bed 17 was a jumble of equipment and the bed sheets were a mess, but I had many other duties: ventilated patients needed oral care, vitals needed documenting, rooms needed restocking. It was all routine, but that night something was different…something was cracking inside me. For the last six months every night had brought new stories of tragedy and suffering. I had begun to harden towards it and react like a robot. “You have to slow down,” I told myself. “Take time to care, because there might not be another chance.”
As I continued my work, most patients were either too sedated to respond or fought the restraints, trying to free themselves from the machines. In bed 10 Railey was quietly whimpering. Taking her hand I tried to find words of comfort.
She looked up at me. “How will I live without my leg?” She had two young children and did not know how she would care for her family when she was released from the hospital.
I did not know how to respond. “God will take care of you,” I choked out. She was not pacified.
“How do you know?”
“I will pray for you.”
“Yes,” I reassured her, squeezing her hand. Knowing that someone else really cared helped bring her peace, and she eventually drifted off. The night continued at its busy pace.
Anthony’s condition deteriorated fast. The lymphoma was so widespread that within a week we withdrew support; there was nothing more the medical staff could do. The night Anthony died, my mind was churning all the way home. If I would die today would I be ready to face God? I have so many things I still want to do. I am too young to die – but Anthony was, too.
I recalled my tenth grade math teacher, Elvin Compy, who was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks before the start of school. Facing death did not stop him. He continued teaching us until two weeks before his death in May. In his most important lessons he showed us by his example how to care for others. I wondered what had given him his strength. Then I remembered what he had said in his last months:
I tell you, I raked through my life, and I saw spiritual pride, intellectual pride, selfishness. I couldn’t think of a thing in my life I did for anybody but myself. It just crushed me. And I am glad – because “me” had to be crushed. God disabled me, as it were. I learned through that. I want to be like a child. I don’t have to know anything. I don’t have to understand anything. I don’t have to be anybody or impress anybody.
His words struck a chord in my heart. What use are my human talents if they only serve to inflate my own ego? Anthony’s death made me realize again that life is fragile even for those of us who think we are young and strong. Stepping back I could see that although I worked in the ICU and saw pain and misery on a daily basis, I had become so embroiled in “me,” my pride and ambitions, that I was missing the suffering of those around me.
Need and pain are not only present in a hospital setting. In reality, the people we see every day are most likely dealing with some kind of sorrow or hurt. How many of us are so calloused that we are unable to show compassion? Anthony’s death taught me that God’s love will be evident through me only when, like my dying math teacher, I can become as selfless and soft-hearted as a child.
All of the names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of patients.