By Jennifer Paquette
Douglas was on a cardiac unit awaiting a transplant. His home was 90 miles from the hospital. In the hope of finding a suitable heart, his care team had been reluctant to release him to his home. But people were depending on Doug, his preferred name. He had moved his aging parents to a house near his. His brother had lingering brain damage. Both the parents and Doug’s brother depended on him financially.
I met Doug three weeks into his hospital stay, shortly after the insertion of an LVAD (left ventricular assist device). He was a college professor and only recently had been “exploring God,” he told me. He had joined a small church near where he lived and became active in it. Everything about Doug was intriguing and engaging, especially his openness and eagerness to learn about God. At the conclusion of our first meeting, I asked to bless him. He had never known what it was like, or even meant, to be blessed. From then on, whenever I visited him, he would not allow me to leave without a blessing.
The day came when he would leave the hospital. Having an LVAD meant having a team of friends who, each in turn, could always be with him. Having friends was no problem. I had seen many when I visited him. In the midst of our final meeting, his nurse dashed into the room. “When is your team going to get here? You cannot leave until they are all trained on your LVAD,” she commanded.
Doug stalled, even stammered a bit. “They’re all at work. Do they really have to be here before I go?” On her way out of the room, the nurse called back, “No exceptions!” I was incredulous. Did he genuinely think he could leave without their support?
“Why are you reluctant to call them?” I knew he had been schooled for days on the necessity of the support team, their roles and functions. He tried the “busy at work” line. But I knew all of them to be close friends who had volunteered for the role. Other than his fierce independence, I could not imagine a reason.
“Doug, if the situation were reversed – if any one of them needed your assistance, would you not take a few hours off from the university to be where they needed you to be?”
Unwilling to concede for some moments, he did not look at me. Finally, he said, “Are you going to sit here until I call them?”
The respect we held for each other allowed me to chuckle. He then looked at me with a broad smile.
“I trust you,” I said. “I’ll leave.” And so I did … after the requisite blessing.
Helping heart patients, especially those on an LVAD, means a significant responsibility for the patient’s life. And Doug’s friends had said they wanted to do this for him – not just a “well, OK, I’ll do it.” When Doug was able to reverse the situation in his mind and realize that this was not all about him, he came to understand the pledge his friends had made to care for him, to appreciate and receive their love, and, indeed, their need to fulfill those roles. As Doug was for his parents and brother, we were born to be caretakers for one another.
Some weeks later, I was attending an early meeting at the hospital. A fellow chaplain met me at the doorway of the conference room as the meeting ended. “Doug is back in the hospital.” Her face held the message I never wanted to hear. “Is he still alive?” I asked.
The tears filling her eyes answered my question. Doug had died on the ambulance ride to the hospital.
When I arrived at the bedside, his friends had left. I sat there, holding his hand and praying. He had come to be my friend and I could not leave him alone, especially knowing that one more procedure remained; the surgical team would need to remove the LVAD for study. Prior to their arrival, various hospital staff who had cared for him and had come to know his pure goodness visited at the bedside with me. Doug had touched so many lives. He cared about others. His genuineness was real.
The surgical team arrived and took him away – but not before I gave him one final blessing.
Jennifer W. Paquette, BCC, is now retired and previously served as director of mission services at The St. Joseph’s Hospitals in Tampa, FL.