She died, naked. With a room full of strangers, pulling and tugging and beating on her frail body while I offered up prayers, fought back tears, and broke her ribs. In my fraternity, there are many unspoken rituals and hallowed rites of passage. Few sear themselves into the consciousness of each doctor to be as profoundly as the first time we are honored to bear witness to the death of a patient.
Her name was Rose. And when medics wheeled her into room 3 of my emergency department I had just come from a conference on the other side of the hospital. Looking forward to 2 minutes of settling in prior to the start of my shift, I wanted nothing to do with the new admission who looked in pretty bad shape. When the nurse receiving Rose called for a ‘code red’, my concerns were assuaged. Code red meant that the patient was in poor enough status that a full-fledged, attending physician had to be present immediately to manage this patient's medical needs. The last thing you wanted around was a bright-eyed 3rd-year medical student checking his pocket textbook every 2 minutes to remember what the names of the 5 parts of the heart were…atricle? ventrium? Wtf.
Still, as Rose was being wheeled in and writhing back and forth on her gurney I looked up. For a brief moment amidst her thrashing back and forth and quite literally fighting for her life, she paused. Our eyes met and something in her spoke to something in me saying, “please my friend, come, abide with me a while”. Knowing the still, soft voice of Spirit when I hear her beckon, I stood, took a deep breath, asked for my creator's guidance and stepped into room 3. With at that point, with very little actual know-how on what to do in such an acute situation, I did what I was trained to do… I pulled out a piece of paper and started asking Rose questions. Where did she live? When did symptoms begin? How did this happen? Does she have family in the area? Between her shrieks and gasps, and as the rest of the medical team was assembling, Rose told me that she was homeless. Estranged from most of her family, she had a liver condition that triggered an underlying stomach condition, and she feels like she is about to die.
Over the course of the next hour, I was tested and Rose fought.
During that time, room 3 would be transformed from the non-descript stabilization room with bad fluorescent lighting at the end of the hallway to the threshing floor where I would take my sacred rite. And there… there we would have church. What began as a trio composed of myself, a nurse and a paramedic would soon swell to become a congregation of nearly 20 children of God all there to assist, abide, and bear witness. When Rose left this world, two doctors served as deaconesses at her feet orchestrating the team and directing our choir. Three nurses by Rose's side passed syringes and paddles over her fadding physical form. Simultaneously fighting to save her life and holding her hand in comfort as they midwifed her spirit from this world. I was amazed at how this frail body, six or seven decades long on this earth laying there bare, naked, unclothed, was at the same time so completely shrouded in the care and affections of a room full of strangers.