By Camille Buckley
One Sunday morning I was called to the emergency department. I learned that the patient had posted a suicide note on Facebook that morning and a close friend saw it. She notified his mother, who found him unresponsive and pulseless. Emergency responders were able to revive him to the extent that he had a heartbeat and blood pressure. Now he was on life support.
Eventually his mom arrived, very distraught. Her appearance revealed a life fraught with physical and perhaps psychological and emotional challenges. As the morning wore on, she shared her story about her own very poor health, death of her siblings from cancer, suicide of her husband at a young age, prior incarceration of this son while her other son was currently in prison, and more.
The mother of the patient’s son arrived. By coincidence, she had been at work here at the hospital, heard the Code 10 called, and felt immediately she knew who it was for. Their 6-year-old son was at home with family. She had a quiet strength. Although very tearful and emotional, she was realistic in her expectations.
The neuro-intensivist and nurse practitioner performed many tests to evaluate the patient’s brain function, while the family and I remained in the room.
The patient’s mom shared that her other son was currently incarcerated locally, and she wanted him to come in to see his brother before he died. This began a LONG series of phone calls trying to get a human rather than a recording. Frustration set in with multiple options — “push 1 for …, push 2 for …” — all on a Sunday morning when much of the working world had a day off. When I finally got a live voice, the news was not good. There had to be permission from a higher authority and transportation arrangements, which could not be done on a Sunday, but the patient could be dead in hours.
The patient’s mom also requested a visit from her Orthodox priests, but when they did arrive the patient was being transferred to ICU. This is generally a lengthy process, and the priests did not stay. When my shift ended, it seemed that all did not go as hoped.
The patient was in ICU on Monday morning. I spoke with the mother of his son, and she told me how she brought the child to the ICU to see his dad. She felt it was particularly important, as the patient had promised the night before to see his son that day and now would not be there. She told me the plans she made to help him though this time.
The priests were called again, and this time two of them came to be with the patient’s mom and to pray the Orthodox prayers over the patient. By afternoon, word came that the brother would arrive. He did, in his orange uniform and shackles on both wrists and ankles, escorted by two correctional officers. He was walked slowly to the bedside, where he said his farewell and cried inconsolably. He asked me about heaven, told me some of his story and concerns. I answered, supported, and suggested he might talk with the correctional facility’s chaplain. Having been a volunteer in several prisons over the past 10 years, I was acutely aware of repeated stories about prisoners who could not be at the bedside of a dying relative. They have shared their suffering because of this. This motivated me to make sure this did not happen in this instance.
The next morning the patient’s room was empty as the body was in the operating room for the harvest of organs. “Harvest” in the usual sense of the word is gathering the fruits of our labor to provide nourishment to our bodies. Perhaps this word was intentionally used as this body, although it had experienced many droughts, was still able to provide new life to others.
This is a sacred story because of the humanness and goodness of all who were present. For me it shows hope.
It was about the mother who, though suffering her own illnesses and addictions, wanted her incarcerated son to be with his brother as he lay dying.
It was about the incarcerated brother who, though imprisoned for his crimes, still poured out his grief by his brother with his shackled arms and legs, his humanity very evident.
It was about his human dignity and being invited to touch his dying brother’s hand, to reconnect skin to skin, give him a kiss. It was about being offered tissues to dry his so-human tears.
It was about the man who had lived with the patient’s mom for 26 years and left her for another woman, who came to the hospital and was at her side to support her despite their past.
It was about the new ICU nurse who broke down into compassionate tears of deep connection and understanding as she watched the brother’s anguish as he said “Goodbye” and “I love you.”
It was about the nurse manager who calmly attended to organizing and overseeing the patient’s, family’s, and staff’s needs.
It was about the nursing staff who respectfully tended to this patient, carrying out all the procedures necessary to enable his body to bring life to many even in this tragedy.
It was about the caring, compassionate, nonjudgmental attitude of all within the midst of the messiness of broken lives and death.
It was about goodness and hope and life in the midst of dysfunction, addiction, crime, and broken relationships.
It is a sacred story.
Camille Buckley, BCC, is a staff chaplain at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, NY, and a facilitator for the Cephas support group at Attica Correctional Facility