restricted access Being at the Bedside of the Dying
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11 Being at the Bedside of the Dying If you work in our field long enough, no matter where you’re employed or where your ambition takes you, sooner or later you will be called on to sit with the sick, the grieving, and the dying. Some of us, those who do our nursing in places like the intensive care unit or the cancer ward, perhaps sit with the dying and the grieving more often. Never mind. Sooner or later, this task comes to us all. The first time I saw a dead person I was a nurse’s aide, my first evening on the job. The charge nurse had asked me to make vital signs rounds, going from room to room and taking the patients’ temperatures, pulses, and blood pressures. I set off with my clipboard and a stethoscope, feeling a bit awkward in my new blue uniform and white shoes, scissors tucked into my pocket. At first, everything went fine. I introduced myself and chatted with patients, some in double rooms, some in eight-bed wards. I’d take a patient’s glass thermometer from the bedside plastic holder, wipe off the alcohol (I can still smell the sharp, white smell of it), shake down the glittery column of mercury, and place the glass rod under the patient’s tongue. While the thermometer “cooked,” I held the patient’s wrist and counted the heartbeats for one minute. Like most of the other aides, I fudged on the respirations, writing down “20” for each patient. It wasn’t until later, when I became a nurse, like the nurses around me that first night—the women in white, the ones who soothed patients with a word or a gesture, the ones who knew how to insert intravenous lines and how to shock patients back to life—that I realized twelve breaths a minute was the norm. Odd, then, that it was Mr. Tonelli’s obvious lack of breathing that first caught my attention when I pulled back his curtain and called, “Good evening! Here to take your blood pressure!” My patient didn’t answer. Flat on his back, eyes open and fixed on the overhead light, the old man’s mouth was a round “O” underneath the overhang of his boney nose. Something was missing, as if whatever made him Mr. Tonelli had gotten up and left, abandoning the unbreathing husk of him, leaving it behind for me to find. His skin was gray, shriveled, and dry to Davis text.indb 11 11/12/08 10:00:27 AM 12  the heart’s truth my one-finger touch. In an instant, I recognized dead. Dead as my gerbil had been when I was six, dead as all those goldfish floating sideways at the top of the tanks of my childhood, dead as the puppy I’d seen hit by a car when I was ten. One minute, a body could be full and soft and illuminated by something that was, without a doubt, life. The next minute that same body could be sunken, inexplicably smaller, and dim, as if there indeed had been a radiant soul that was suddenly called away. I stood for a moment staring at Mr. Tonelli. I stroked the freckled back of his hand. I felt his hard yellow nails. I touched his bare arm with the back of my hand, as if checking a baby’s bath water. I leaned over to gaze into his eyes, blue and sunken into their orbits. I remember saying a prayer, something like, “Please let his soul ascend unto heaven and rest in peace.” I took a deep breath, as if for both of us, and sat down next to him on the bed. I’d never met Mr. Tonelli before, yet I felt honored to be the first one to see him like this. It seemed important, and an intimacy beyond words. When I left his room to walk back and deliver the news to the charge nurse, I was changed. I’d seen death, human death. And while this man’s dead body had something in common with the other bodies I’d seen, it was astoundingly different. I told the nurse, and she seemed to cave in a bit, as if someone in her keeping had slipped away unaccompanied, and this brought her pain. Looking back, I know how many deaths she must have seen, how many bodies she’d bathed and wrapped and walked to...


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