Sunday, November 07, 2004

Holding On

Mr. Thai cried himself to sleep both nights that I worked with him. He also cried after calling out his wife's name in vain every morning upon waking. His tears broke my heart.

Mia: Does your wife know how important it is to you to be near her right now?

Mr. Thai (tears falling onto his cheeks): Yes, she knows.

I'd read the report in his chart, "Wife appears to be having difficulty coping. Wife states to physicians that she is unable to care for the patient at home. She would like to find in-patient hospice placement for her husband."

Letting go is a process. For both the dying and their loved ones. The best we can hope for is to walk families through this process together. Helping them to hold hands, compassionately with one another before it is time to open their fingers and let their hands part. I like to think of my job as being a "Midwife for the End of Life" (yes, good point, JennyNYC, the similarity between deciding between home birth and hospital births is not lost on me). Just as a midwife does to help families bring a new life into this world, I am serving as guide through a potentially frightening though loving experience for a family as a life leaves this world.

Mia: How long have you and your wife been married?

Mr. Thai (sobbing to the point his speech is barely comprehensible): 50 years. I have woken up with her beside me in bed every morning for 50 years. This is why I call out for her each morning I'm in the hospital.

Times like these, especially as I listen as the wife's phone rings and rings and I cannot reach her to try to bring these two together, the ache in my heart is almost unbearable.

And the question again arises, this time during my appointment with my massage therapist today, how do you cope with being present with other people's grief around you all the time? Well, for one, I get lots of massages! :-) And for the other, an interesting analogy came to me:

When I try to turn my patients by myself, my massage therapist scolds me as she does her best to repair the damage to my back. When I ask a co-worker for help, my back thanks me as I realize how much easier it is when two people turn a patient together. When a patient is particularly upset at night, I call the hospital chaplain. 99% of the time, a half hour with the hospital chaplain will make a huge difference for the patient. I don't do this work alone. There are times, even when the patient refuses chaplain services, I will ask the chaplain to come by at least to introduce him/herself. Though sometimes, perhaps I should be the one sitting down with the hospital chaplain for a half-hour. :-) There is an African proverb that I'm sure most of you have heard, "It takes a village to raise a child." I'd say it also takes a village to bury one. And by child, I am referring to all of us.

Today, I am thinking of Mr. Thai and hoping and trying to trust that the village that is my hospital is helping to bring him and his wife together.

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