Let Them Say Goodbye

“Huh, interesting,” I thought. I was being sent up to the ER to assist with a transfer to another, larger hospital. “Interesting, but not particularly rare or unusual.”

I’d seen this diagnosis numerous times. Hell, I’d seen this presentation for this diagnosis a couple times too. When asked if my assistance would be needed, the doctor sucked on the inside of his cheek thoughtfully, and finally said, “The patient will probably be alright. But, eh, it wouldn’t hurt to stack the deck.” And that’s how I became a second set of hands in the back of the truck. If you were superstitious, you might say I was sent with the intention of being more of a good luck charm than a second practitioner. If you weren’t, you might just say I was a poorly allocated resource.

Four-leaf clover or unnecessary weight in the back of the truck, I was happy to be going along on a transfer with a pretty sick patient. Even better, a pretty sick patient with an anticipated positive outcome. Sounded like I was going to go home that night content with the somewhat false knowledge that I helped a little bit today.

Our patient was a sweetheart. Polite, witty, intelligent, friendly, but definitely a bit nervous and frazzled. She had a dog that needed walking, a yoga class to get to, an upcoming vacation to pack for. This trip to the hospital was not planned in her tidy schedule. Her husband stood at the door, fidgeting with his jacket, occasionally taking a few paces forward and a few paces back.

We got her settled on our stretcher, and hooked her up to all of our equipment. Explanations were sprinkled with light jokes, which seemed to calm her somewhat. In short order, we were ready to load her into the ambulance and get on our merry way. I started for the door when I felt my partner pull back ever so lightly on the stretcher.

“Would you like to give her a kiss goodbye?” The paramedic offered gently and brightly. The husband sheepishly grinned, and shuffled over to his wife. He kissed her on the lips, then gently on the forehead. He smoothed back the stray, wavy locks that had sprung free from her braid.

“I’ll be over soon. I’m just going to go home, pack a few things, and call the boys. But I’ll be right there,” He promised.

“Take your time. Don’t worry. I won’t be going anywhere,” She dismissed with a smile and a squeeze of his hand.

It was a cute and tender exchange–one that softens my heart for a little whenever I see it. We whisked her away into the back of the ambulance and took off without much of another thought about it. After a few quiet minutes, her concern became evident.

“I never thought this could happen to me. I do everything right,” She said quietly, tears brimming in her eyes. The paramedic set down his paperwork, and fished around for the small box of cheap tissues. Our patient squeezed my hand lightly. I squeezed back.

I picked a line from my mental toolbox. I’d used it plenty of times before, and I meant it every single time.

“Hey. Look at me,” I started gently. When she lifted her eyes to meet mine, I offered a timid, crooked smile. I tried to let my eyes reflect the compassion and concern I had for this wonderful woman. “Do I look scared?” I ticked my head in the direction of the paramedic. “Does he look scared?”

“No.”

“Then it’s okay. We’re doing everything we can for you, and there is nothing about what’s going on right now that scares us, or is making us panic. You’re in great hands. We’re here to help.”

 

I will never use that line again.

 

She thought it over for a second, as a playful smile eased her worried brow. “So, when you guys start looking scared–then I should be scared?” She teased.

“Yes,” I laughed, “Then you can be scared.”

Her nervousness diminished some as she told us about her life. About how her childhood best friend grew up to be a nurse. About how she met her husband at the local lake one summer. About how she turned down his friend’s request for a date because she really wanted to date her future husband instead. About how she went on to be a teacher. About how she loves to make apple turnovers while singing, which she thought bothered her husband (although he never said anything). About how she loves going to yoga in the morning, and taking walks in the evenings. About her small house by the lake. About how the smell of daisies, pine, and pond water always seems to set things in perspective.

I could’ve listened to her forever. That might be my favorite thing about EMS–being granted the privilege to look through these snapshots of life with another person. But, soon enough, we arrived at our destination. We wove our stretcher through throngs of nurses, doctors, and families, we found our room assignment.

I turned to prepare our patient for the sheet transfer to the hospital bed. In a sickening, heart-dropping instant, everything had changed. That rare, potential complication that is listed when consent forms are signed…it was actually happening. It was no longer just words on paper. It was no longer something the doctors say to cover their ass. It was right there, and it was real. And there was nothing we could do about it.

The changes were subtle, but rapid. The next few minutes were a blur of gloved hands, quick assessments, urgent murmurs, and STAT tests. A frustrated doctor cursed in the hallway. Nurses were preparing to take our patient to other departments, other rooms; somehow heading simultaneously towards and away from hope. We all knew what the results were going to say, but we needed to see the physical, undeniable damage to permanently extinguish the ever-diminishing hope that maybe this won’t be so bad.

As we passed the stretcher to the staff, our patient grabbed my hand, nearly pulling me over from the momentum of the rolling gurney. Her glassy eyes searched my face. My eyes probably betrayed my fearful, worried interior that I tried to mask with a stoic, serious face.

Barely lucid, she mumbled, “I’m scared now.”

I squeezed her hand and swallowed hard. They took her away to care for her as best they could. Approximately ten minutes later, she was unconscious. She would never wake up again.

My crew and I cleaned the stretcher and ambulance, occasionally muttering something to reflect our disbelief. We stood in the ambulance bay, taking in the skyline of this foreign, distant place. On some street between here and home, is a husband driving over to check on his lovely wife of so many years. A bag is packed and sitting in the backseat. Maybe an apple turnover is sealed up in some Tupperware in there. Maybe a shirt from off the clothesline, saturated with the comforting scent of daisies, pine, and pond water. And as he sings softly along with the radio, he has no idea that he just kissed his wife goodbye for the last time.

We sighed. “I can’t believe…” We’d start. “It happened so fast…” We’d try. But in the end, we were left with nothing but the road noise and a quiet, sad shock.

“We can’t prevent everything. We can’t treat everything. Some things you just don’t see coming,” The paramedic said numbly. “But you can always let them say goodbye. You can always give them that minute. You just never know. It might be the last time.”