Beyond Scientific Explanation
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31 Beyond Scientific Explanation Strange things happen in hospitals, in nursing homes, at the bedsides of the suffering. Odd events become as routine to nurses as the daily tasks of monitoring and medicating patients or staying with them as they die, some struggling, others slipping away peacefully. Nurses understand that something beyond our human comprehension occurs when the last breath is expelled, the one that completes the cycle begun when the patient, as a newborn, took in that first, hearty lungful. This last exhalation lets go not only the energy accumulated in the chemical processes of living but also the essence of what, to me, is evidence of the soul. The body deflates like a balloon with a pinpoint leak. Only the patient’s eyes (which often remain open) reflect the drama of this change. The gaze wanders, first fixing on something nearby, perhaps a loved one in the room. The life spark, that moist glimmer we are so accustomed to, dims, as if a cloud has passed over. Then the eyes, once the arbiter of earthly sight, look away to focus on some other vision, one we in attendance cannot share. Sometimes patients can see their fate arriving, like the elderly woman on the oncology unit who wouldn’t unclench her fists for fear of releasing “Dr. Death,” a presence she had trapped and now, terrified, didn’t dare let go. But her nails were long, cutting into her palms, and so we good nurses pried her fingers open one by one, reassuring her all the while. After the last nail was clipped, her hands open, she sighed, resigned. “What’s the use?” she said. “Now he’s in the room.” Moments later, she died. Watching her depart, we were humbled and afraid. So what of ghosts? Although we often see the soul leaving the body, it’s mostly what happens after death that surprises us. Once, after a young girl died on the eveningshift, thecharge nurse received a phonecall.Thecaller,identifyingherself as the patient’s mother, asked that her daughter’s body be held on the ward for a few hours, giving her time “to come and say good-bye.” When I arrived the next morning, I was shocked to see the girl’s body still in her room. I asked why she Davis text.indb 31 11/12/08 10:00:30 AM 32  the heart’s truth had not been taken to the morgue, and the night nurse explained that they were still waiting for the mother’s visit. My heart skipped a beat and then became a steady rhythm that swelled into my throat, my temples. I knew what the other nurses did not know—that the patient’s mother had died years before. When I told them, we sat for a moment in silence. Who was the woman who called, asking for a last chance to see her daughter? Was it the mother, and did she come to visit? We decided that she had and so prepared the girl’s body for the morgue, carefully, lovingly. The nurses agreed that even if they had known that the mother was no longer alive, none of them would have ignored that phone call. There are other stories of course: the way the elevator seems full of a swirling, dizzying “presence” for hours after we transport a body down to the basement morgue where the cold drawer waits, or the way some rooms seem forever haunted. A friend who works in another hospital says that every patient placed in a certain room always survives, even when, judging by the severity of their condition, they shouldn’t. She’s sure it’s the intercession of a patient who died there years ago, a young man injured in a car crash who’d wanted desperately to live. His often-repeated vow, that he’d come back to help other patients, seems not to have been a deluded rambling at all. My favorite story concerns Otto, a cranky, heavyset, chain-smoking guy who was our patient for weeks. Dying not of his cancer but of a superimposed infection , Otto rang his call bell persistently, stretching our collective patience to the limit. All day, Otto rang every fifteen minutes, the longest he could go without a nurse’s voice or touch, something to remind him he was still a part of this world. When we went in to minister to him—to straighten his sheet or loosen his blanket or move...


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