On call as a hospital chaplain last weekend, I step in to say hello to a tender, grieving, middle-aged father in a darkened room, sitting at the bedside of his gravely ill 24-year old son, lying in a sedated sleep. It’s been six weeks like this, the father says softly, his eyes wet. But they pray they’ll be able to take their boy home with a feeding tube in another week or two. That’s the hope, anyway, their prayer for blessing or luck or grace for their son. They are Catholic but, unconcerned that I’m not, he asks if I would pray for his son. He takes my left hand, my right rests lightly on his son’s knee. Praying to whatever it is that we hold divine, I ask the source of all wisdom, healing, and comfort for faith, compassion, healing, and that the presence of love may flow freely for this young man and his family, however each day unfolds.
In the next room, a sharp 90-year old veteran regaled me for a while with vivid stories of World War II. “Were you career military,” I asked. “No way,” he says, rolling his eyes, “they wouldn’t have me!” ”Will you be going home soon?” He can’t go home, he says, because his wife is “giving him the boot,” sending him to a rest home. “A rest home! Well, I’m not ready for that,” he declares. “What’ll happen to my friends? Who will drive them to the store? I’m the only one who still has a license. That’s right. At 90.” No prayers, thanks, just company. The Olympics is on his TV, hockey, and he shares his opinions on the players and the sport for a while. As I’m leaving, my beeper sounds. Code blue in the ICU. All hands on deck. I wish this bright-eyed gentleman well and head to the ICU.
Room 6: controlled chaos under glaring lights and bleeping flashing electronics. A small army, commander at the head of the bed, personnel scurrying in and out, intense focus on extreme measures. Defending the territory against all odds. Near the bed, a woman doubled over in a folding chair, contracted in tears and frantic novenas, praying, begging, imploring, bargaining, placating, flattering, demanding, pleading with God. Organized frenzy floods the room. Pounding pounding pounding. Eppie eppie. Chem-shock jump start. Again and again. High alert, focused intensity.
Pounding, pounding. Taking turns. Again. Again. Desperate prayers, convulsed tears. Eppie. Eppie. Again. Again.Tight clenching on my arm. “What are they doing?” “Everything they can.” “What’s wrong? Why are they stopping??” Breathing quietly. “To assess.” “What’s happening now? Is it working? Is it working?” Pause. “They don’t know.”
Again. And again. Quietly holding her, stroking her back, softly and slowly praying, as she repeats after me, invoking grace, mercy, courage, trust, acceptance, compassion. Quietly, slowly, on and on. Opening space for any outcome. Breathing, swaying, quiet. And more pounding. Pounding.”Why does it keep going on? Is it doing any good?”
Again and again. “What’s happening? It isn’t working, is it? Why are they doing this? Why don’t they stop? It isn’t working.” Quietly I whisper, if she wants them to stop, they will. It is up to her now, if she feels it is no longer right, if it is not what he would want, she can stop it whenever she is ready. It is up to her, whenever she decides.
High alert. Next in line, pounding, pounding. Eppie. Weeping. Again and again. And then: “Stop it! Just stop!” Gathering her dignity. “What’s the point?” she says. “I mean, is there still any point?” That last faintly shadowed question holds a yearning, desperate against all odds. All eyes turn to her, all straighten slightly away from her beloved, all attentive. It is her call. The doc, kindly, tired: “We really don’t know. Probably very little now.”
Intense quiet. Then a tech quietly reports to the doc, “The pulse is back.” All alert. Listening. listening. Eyes on the monitors, listening. Pulse. A pulse. Perceptible, steady, growing. All eyes sharp and clear. Stronger. 20 seconds. Beat. Beat. 30 seconds. Listening. Clutching fingers tighten on my arm. Listen. Wait. Pulse? Pulse? Listen. Fading. Fading. Soft. Imperceptible. Silent.
Gasping. Frantic. “Frank? What happened? Wait! Is it over? Frank?!” Silence. “NO!” My arms around her again. Then the doc: “I’m sorry.” Shuddering, quiet. Tears. I whisper, “They will all leave now. I’ll dim the lights. Now it’s time for only love.”
The small army quietly packs up and slips away. 1 hour. End of code.