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Death and All His Friends


Death is the guy no one invited to the party, and yet he always shows up. In healthcare, death is the enemy, but how hard can you fight something that lurks in the corner of a hospital floor? And more importantly, how do you stay strong and vulnerable at the same time as a nurse?

Death and All His Friends

I was 16 years old when I saw death for the first time.

I was working in a small emergency room, and they brought an old man in who had had a heart attack while out canoeing with his wife. There were chest compressions, quiet sobs from his wife, the grim silence as the doctor stepped away from the patient...and it was all over.

I will never forget how in the moment of death, the man almost seemed to deflate. Like something more than his breath had left him. His essence, his soul, his very life had left him. In what seemed like only seconds after, the hospital staff asked me to "clean him up" before the funeral home staff came for him. They left me alone in the room with him. What once had been a man only minutes before was now a corpse. I remember being scared, worried that he was going to somehow jerk or move and still be alive, somehow. He almost looked fake on the cot. I went home and cried for hours.

When I worked in a different emergency room years later, I started seeing death all the time. The older woman whose daughter begged alongside her bed for her mother to just please, please stay alive. The 17-year-old who committed suicide with shoelaces, whose parents asked us to leave the lights on for him when they left because "he had always been scared of the dark". The car accident victims, the old women whose families were ready to let them go, the people who had heart attacks in their prime. The 26-year-old with no past medical history who dropped dead while playing volleyball with his girlfriend. That was the only time I ever cried at work: his mother and father had collapsed at the bedside, and his girlfriend had continuously screamed 'please don't leave me here, don't leave me here, come back come back come back, I love you" until the doctor told her he was gone. Permanently.

The one thing I hate about working in healthcare is that in some ways, it seems easier to deal with death each day, because it is there quietly in every corner. It is the enemy, but it is also THERE. Lurking. Present. Taunting with its nearness, and yet not very understood. It's the person no one invited to the party, yet he found his way in. And I hate that.

Actually, 'easier' is not the word to describe how I deal with death now as a nursing student. But it's different than how it used to be. I am more numb to it than I was before. More hardened. I think it's a defense mechanism, but I don't know. I don't ever want to someone who is insensitive to the tragedy of death, in any of its forms. But how as a nurse do you stay strong, so you don't break with each loss, but still vulnerable, so you never lose your sense of compassion?

RN, BSN ER Nurse

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