Her skin was smooth and unblemished. She had the legs of a dancer and wore a pair of well used running shoes. Her hair was delicately curled, a pale blonde hue. Her firm mounding breasts, which were pointing toward the ceiling, undulated under the pulsations of the Lucas Chest compression device (see this sample video). Her heart had flat lined. I “called” the code. She was dead at 91, but had been otherwise a perfect picture of health-with the body of a much younger woman, and no preceding illness.
My staff and I have evolved in our views of death and dying. No one talked about how sad this lady’s death was.
Instead, after I pronounced her time of death, one of my nurses said, in a celebratory tone, “Wow, she must have had a fabulous life.”
I said in response, “What a way to go! I can only hope to live so long, so vibrantly, so healthily…and then just go….” I had been quickly removing my gown and gloves as I said this, but then I slowed and turned back to look at her body in appreciation….”Good for her.”
Another nurse said, “She is very lucky.”
In the midst of all of this appreciation directed toward the life, body and manner of dying of my “officially”* deceased patient, The patient-family care representative who works with us came in- “Can you believe this woman is 91? And she lived independently? As a matter of fact, she had driven her friends around doing errands yesterday, then they chatted on the phone this morning. Then, she called them shortly after lunch saying that she didn’t feel right.” Devoted friends, they were at her house within minutes. “They said she was not breathing on the sofa.”
The friends had called 911 and started CPR. Paramedics arrived, intubated her, and worked on her for over an hour, until she arrived to my ER….as dead as when her friends had found her.
After hearing that report from our patient representative about our lady, I said again “Amazing, what a way to go!”
“Let’s go talk to the family,” I motioned the patient rep to lead me to the place they had gathered to “hear” the “official” news.
As I introduced myself, I looked around the room, making eye contact with each person to acknowledge their presence. “I am Doctor Murphy, I understand that all of you are family and friends of Ms. Wharton …”
Then, as always, I find a way to sit or kneel before the family. This time I sat and held her sister’s hand.
“I am here to tell you what you probably already know in your heart, that Ms. Wharton is dead.” I paused… “I am so sorry for the loss you will feel in your life with her passing, but I want to tell you something very important …something that I hope you will always remember that I said tonight …She lived a great, long, and healthy life, then she went quickly without suffering…the way in which she lived and the way she died seems like a blessing and I would take it for myself any day! In fact, I hope to grow up to be like her.” **
Everyone smiled and laughed through their tears.
Her sister hugged me and said “Doctor, you are right! She lived life to the fullest. She loved everyone and never held a grudge. She was always the first to help someone or take them somewhere. And she lived everyday life it was her last. And then, on her last day, she was in perfect health.”
I was moved, so through my own misty eyes, I hugged her back and looking around the room at this loving and grateful family, I said, “Now, I really hope that I can grow up to be like her.”
A niece who was standing in the corner of the room said, “Maybe we should all try to grow up to be like her.”
*I say “officially deceased” because this woman was dead when her friends found her on the sofa, but in our society, no one is dead until the doctor says they are dead. We view death as potentially reversible (’cause sometimes it is) and so we consciously attempt to withhold knowledge of death until a medical official confirms it. Sort of strange, huh?
**What the healthcare provider does and says at the “death pronouncement” becomes part of the story of the deceased person’s life. It is our honor and duty to add grace and perspective to their story.
-Monica Williams-Murphy, MD
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