Granting leave

November 27, 1997|By Pat McLellan

IN THIS season of thanksgiving, I remember death and compassion.

The death was my husband's, and the compassion a gift from a caring hospital staff.

After years with diabetes and its complications, my husband, John McLellan, suffered heart failure last month and was rushed to Saint Agnes Hospital.

After working on John for some time, the doctors came to explain to the family that his heart had started back up -- but he was breathing only with the help of a ventilator. What should they do?

''Could we see him?'' I asked.

A nurse told us to go in and talk to him, ''He can hear you.'' And we did just that.

Knowing what to do

As for the question of what we should do, the answer was very clear. My husband had a living will, stating that he did not want to be kept alive artificially. So it was not a wrenching decision to unplug the ventilator.

It was not sustaining a life we wanted for him or that he would have wanted.

After the ventilator was disconnected, the hospital's Dr. Athol Morgan suggested that we not go far because John could pass away at any moment. But he did not. He breathed on his own for another 10 precious hours; it was time that we used to talk, even to joke, at his bedside.

The hospital staff made telephones available for us to call family members, including our only son, who lives in Florida.

He said goodbye to his dad as I held the phone to my husband's ear.

A priest came to comfort us; he had already given my husband the Anointing of the Sick. As we prayed, ''Our Father,'' the priest's beeper went off.

''Oh, I thought I'd stepped on something important,'' he said, and went on to offer us a joke.

The priest understood us. Humor was a gift. It was fitting, too, because my husband loved to tell jokes.

Although John was in a coma, he seemed to know when different family members would rub his forehead or hold his hand.

One daughter thanked him for an anniversary dinner; our other daughter asked where her dinner gift certificate was.

The two sons-in-law were able to say goodbye. Both saw my husband as a friend more so than father-in-law.

A miracle

Dr. Morgan talked with one daughter and asked if there was anything he could do for her.

''Just a miracle,'' she said.

''This is your miracle,'' he told her. ''You and your family get to be here with your dad, to say goodbye and hold his hand while he goes on.''

When John was moved to a room on an upper floor, we thanked a wonderful nurse in the emergency room. But she said it was she who should thank us.

She sees so much of death, but this night was different. It wasn't all crying and sadness. It was a farewell, a granting someone leave. She thanked us for letting her be a part of our coming together as a family and said she felt special sharing our memories.

Upstairs, the nurses did everything to make us comfortable through the night. And when John died the next morning, they told us we could have as much time as we needed. The nurses were in no hurry as we awaited the son coming from Florida.

Shortly before his arrival, the staff urged us to have coffee in the cafeteria. While we were gone, they washed John and changed his gown. My son was very happy to get a chance to see his father where he died.

When Dr. Morgan returned, he gave us a copy of a poem by Robert Carver, ''My Death,'' that expressed some of our thoughts -- and could well have been John's.

It is about dying in a hospital bed, ''wired every whichway,'' but lucky if there is time for loved ones to draw near -- perhaps even to have the strength to show them some sign of recognition in return.

# This is an excerpt:

Since they love me,

They'll lift my hand and say ''Courage'' or

''It's going to be all right.''

And they're right. It is all right.

It's just fine. . . be glad for me

if I can die in the presence of friends and family.

If this happens, believe me,

I came out ahead.

I didn't lose this one.''

Pat McLellan, a Sun employee, writes from Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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