The story I didn’t want to write…

Though it’s been lurking inside my head and heart for a few years now, I’ve been hesitant to write it down for two reasons- both related to fear. The first is fear of not being able to find the right words to pay tribute to this man whose story I wish to share, and secondly (selfishly) for the emotions it invokes in me. There are parts of that day that still make me cry when I think on them… I guess we all have stories like that.  

Mr. L was a 56 year old man diagnosed with IPF (idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis) who came to our hospital to be evaluated and listed for lung transplant. A quiet and gentle man, he was married and had two grown children with kids of their own. When he came to the hospital the week before, he was able to walk from the parking garage to our unit with minimal oxygen support- the morning I took over his care, his condition had worsened so much that he required very high flow and high percentage oxygen.

As the day progressed, the doctor and I tried various medications, treatments, and tweaking of oxygen settings to ease Mr. L’s breathing; a couple of things worked, but only for a little while and his condition continued to deteriorate. We spoke to Mr. L. and his wife about the likelihood of intubation before the day was over- our goal was to postpone it as long as possible for we all knew that once he was intubated, his chances of ever coming off the ventilator were poor.

While I was in his room, Mr. L and his wife were having a discussion about their daughter; since it was her birthday, she and her children were planning to bring cake to the hospital to celebrate. Mr. L was adamant with his wife when she suggested telling their daughter to cancel, saying, “No! You let them come.” We spoke about his conserving energy, and he (at his wife’s urging) reluctantly agreed to set a time limit on the visit. As I watched this man with his family, it was hard to hold back tears- I think he knew this was his last chance to be Daddy to the daughter he loved.

Later that evening, after giving a final round of medications, I had to turn his oxygen up to the maximum settings and phone the doctor with the dreaded words we both knew were coming, “It’s time.” After Mr. L and his wife exchanged a kiss, another nurse and I placed the portable oxygen on his face and literally ran, pushing him in his bed to ICU. Even though the move had been as quick as possible, it had been taxing for Mr. L and it took about a minute for the high flow oxygen to kick in. I stood at the foot of his bed during that time so that at least he could see one familiar face in a scary room full of strangers.

When his color returned to normal and his breathing eased a little, I told him bye and said he was in good hands. As I turned to go, I saw him begin to pull his oxygen mask off and heard his quiet gasping voice say, “Wait!” He grabbed my hand with both of his, and said “Thank you.” I still get choked up thinking of that.

I was at work when I learned of his death two days later, and couldn’t allow myself to process it until I came home that night. Tears flowed as I prayed to God hoping I had been in the right place at the right time and hadn’t disappointed Him.

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