There are times, however, when the patient can't improve. To our frustration, we all remember times when our patients were terminally ill. Some we didn't know very well, so the feelings inside were sadness and reverence. Some were our favorites, and we cried together with their families. Yet I learned that death is not always a failure on the part of a patient or his medical staff. There is a powerful event which when happens is able to make peace between life and death. This event is called reconciliation.
After graduating with my B.S. in Nursing I worked in a small hospital in eastern Kentucky. Being born and raised in Russia, it took time for me to get used to the local accent. However, I found people delightfully simple and friendly - they tried their best to understand my Russian accent and I was often telling them funny stories about how people live in my country.
That day was my regular day shift. I had 9 patients, but they were unusually stable and therefore I was rather cool, calm, and surrendered. At the end of my hallway was a room for just one patient, and earlier in the day the patient was admitted there by another nurse. I was walking down the hallway in the afternoon when I heard this patient's IV beeping. I went in to see if it was just kinked and maybe could be easily fixed.
A man in his late fifties was lying on the bed with Dr. E seated by his side and a lady about 40 years old standing in the room. I was surprised to see Dr. E because it was long after the doctors' rounds were finished and this doctor was pregnant, so I knew she would not come out to the hospital unless there was a serious reason. While fixing the IV, and sure enough it was just kinked, I heard bits and pieces of a conversation.
"... Unfortunately Mr. J, the picture we got a week ago and a picture we got today are drastically different... It grew to the size of a grapefruit... This is a very rapidly growing cancer..."
The IV was fixed; I exited and went on to check on my own patients. 15 minutes later the IV began to beep again, and I went toward that private room, thinking about how unwise it was to give this client to another nurse, the majority of those patients were in another hallway. I quietly passed by Dr. E standing outside the room, holding the lady and talking to her quietly, trying to comfort her. The lady turned out to be Mr. J's daughter and right now she was sobbing inconsolably. I entered the room and looked at the man with some degree of curiosity, I'll have to admit.
He was lying quietly staring at his sheets. I fixed the IV, but I couldn't just leave him. We both could hear his daughter crying in the hallway. I sat down and took his hand. What do you say to a man who just received his death verdict?
"Are you scared?" I whispered.
He looked at me and tried to smile or say something, but I don't recall that anything actually left his lips. He just looked lost. I was so young, only 21, and this was the first time I was witnessing a person's reaction to the news of his death. I felt the sacredness of this moment and I could almost hear the world pausing, waiting for his reaction. And then suddenly something broke the silence - to my ultimate surprise, it was my quiet singing.
I often sang to patients: little funny songs, Christmas carols, Russian songs. But those were cheerful songs meant to brighten the day. I never sang to a dying man. And now in this room, touched by the shadow of death I was singing an old hymn:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll...
Mr. J closed his eyes and squeezed my hand, and to my dismay, the tears started rolling down his cheeks. Usually, I would have been afraid that I had done something wrong, but deep down inside I knew whatever I was doing now was right, and the song went on:
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say:
It is well, it is well with my soul...
I don't remember how long I kept singing, but I remember the words that came out of his mouth finally:
"Thank you! Thank you!"
And I knew immediately he wasn't thanking me. When Mr. J opened his eyes, he looked straight at me and said: "I saw heavens open and angels singing. And now I know that God accepts me."
This man from Eastern Kentucky probably didn't know that he practically quoted the great composer George Frederic Handel, who several centuries ago said the same very words after composing his famous "Hallelujah Chorus".
His whole countenance changed. It was almost as if his confidence had returned. Chills ran down my back. I realized that I had just witnessed reconciliation between man and God.
In the next several months I saw Mr. J quite often in the hospital. Sometimes I was his nurse, sometimes I would just stop by to say "Hello." When he would see me, he would say: "Here's my angel," but I knew I was no angel. I was only grateful for the privilege to be a small part of a miracle.
His daughter called me when he died. Six years have passed since then. I moved back to Moscow, but in the rush of life in the capital, I still remember the lessons I learned from my encounter with Mr. J. I learned that each one of us longs for reconciliation with self, our loved ones and with God. But more important, I learned that God longs for reconciliation with us. I learned that God has a special way of talking to us, making a conversation that is understood only by Him and the person He is talking to. Other people may witness that conversation, just like I witnessed the reconciliation between Mr. J and God. One might even be a messenger of such a conversation, but this conversation is too intimate and cannot include a third person.
What I remember the most is my feeling of gratitude and humility. What a privilege for a nurse to be an instrument in a healing process that is still possible even in the face of death.