By Kevin Cassidy
I walked into the room and introduced myself as the chaplain. The patient’s husband was alone, sitting by his wife’s bed. He thought that the doctors had asked me to persuade him to make his wife comfortable. “I’m not going to debate with you,” he said.
“I don’t want to debate either,” I replied. “I’m interested in the same thing as you: the care and comfort of your wife.”
“Then you can come in.”
Gustov and his wife, Maria, had been married for 22 years. Maria, who was only 43 years old, had end-stage pancreatic cancer. The doctors had told Gustov that his wife would die from the disease. “Make her comfortable and let her go peacefully,” they recommended. Gustov refused. “You aren’t God,” he told the doctors. “God will decide if my wife lives or dies. You just do your thing, and let God do his.”
Each day, the doctors would come in, examine his wife, and repeat their grim prognosis. It got to the point that Gustov told the doctors that if they didn’t have anything positive to say, not to say anything at all. Over the next few days, Maria’s condition worsened. This time, the doctors did speak up. “It’s just a matter of time,” they said. “Let us make her comfortable.” Again, Gustov said no. But he did agree to a DNR. “If her heart stops, that means God wants her.”
“What’s helping you get through this?” I asked.
“My faith,” he said. “She’s been sick before. And back then, those doctors told me the same thing: She was going to die. But she’s always gotten better. So God is not going to abandon her now. That’s why I don’t want the doctors to stop their medicines or turn off their machines. I want to give God the chance to perform one more miracle.”
“What would your wife say?” I asked. “Did you two ever discuss what you would want at the end of life?”
“Never,” he said, “because it doesn’t matter what we want. All that matters is what God wants.”
Two days later, Maria died from a blood clot. In keeping with Gustov’s wishes, the staff did not try to revive her. I went to see Gustov. I expected him to be mad at God.
“How can I be mad at God?” he said. “It’s not the answer I wanted, certainly. But it’s his decision and his alone. And I must accept it.”
“Would you like to say a prayer?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I already said my prayers.”
He was in a hurry. “I need to start making funeral arrangements,” he said. He shook my hand, said goodbye, and picked up his phone to call the funeral home.
I turned to look at Maria one last time. And I saw a picture of Maria that I hadn’t seen before, a picture someone must have recently brought in and placed on her tray table — a laughing Maria, full of beauty, youth, and life.
And then it hit me: It didn’t matter whether the doctors were correct in their prognosis.
It didn’t matter whether I thought Gustov’s conception of God was theologically flawed.
What mattered for Gustov was his wife — the woman in the bed who once was the woman in the picture — a woman I did not even know.
Gustov was just trying to save her by relying on that one thing that, up until now, helped him make his way in this uncertain, unfair, and often cruel world: his faith.
And I became upset with myself and the doctors for not treating that personal and sacred part of Gustov with more reverence.
I don’t know how I will react when my loved one is in that bed, about to leave me by myself. However I react, I pray that I have a compassionate companion by my side — someone who will not judge me but accept me, understanding that I am just trying to do my best … during the worst time of my life.
Kevin Cassidy, BCC, is a Chaplain Level III at Loyola University Medical Center, a member of Trinity Health, in Maywood, IL.