It was Christmas Eve and I was in the ER working a 11am-11.30pm shift. I eyeballed her across the ER. She walked in with her son, an old frail lady. I looked at her pallor and shaky steps and knew in my gut that she was deathly ill. "She's not going to make it out of here alive," an unbidden thought sprang to my mind as I walked towards her.
Cindy was the charge nurse and as she looked to see who was on next to take a patient, I reached her. "I'll take her Cindy," I said smiling easily at mother and son and taking the paper chart from Cindy.
"Hi, I'm Annie. I will be your nurse today," I said as I deftly got her on a stretcher and closed the curtains of cubicle #4. I helped her change into a hospital gown, hooked up to the cardiac monitor and got my first set of vitals. Her name was Mary. She had been feeling more tired, fatigued and had lost her appetite for over a week. She was a little short of breath. Her vitals were normal. Her BP was border-line. I listened to her lungs and abdomen while my mind raced. I suspected that she was septic and so drew 2 sets of blood culture along with other labs and got a urine sample that was a tad cloudy. Probably a UTI that turned into sepsis, I thought. By the time the doctor came in to see her 15 minutes later, and EKG and CXR was done and I had normal saline running. The doctor agreed that she could be septic and I monitored her vitals carefully.
The lab called back half an hour later with her blood count. Her WBC was 37. Bingo! I thought. Right on the money! I had antibiotics running and we kept pushing fluids. Her pressure began to drop and she started becoming tachycardic. I knew that she would crash pretty soon and wanted to make sure I was prepared. So I gently broached the subject with her son James who had no clue how sick his mother was or what her wishes were in case of an emergency.
I talked to Mary in her son's presence and asked her. She looked at me, with wise knowing eyes and told me, "If you can save me, go ahead and do what you need to do, but at any point if you see it not going to help me, then let me go. I do not want to be hooked up to machine and it is futile." I told her, we would follow her wishes.
I took James aside and talked to him. I asked him if he had any other family. He said he was the sole caretaker of this 87-year-old mother. His dad had died many years ago. He had a sister, who he had not talked to or seen for 20 years. She lived in the same city but they had a fight and stopped talking. I told him gently that it would be a good idea to call her as his mom was very sick. It would only be a matter of time before her systems collapsed due to the overwhelming infection in her blood. He was bewildered and said, "But she walked in! She can't be that sick". I told him that UTI and sepsis signs in the elderly were very subtle and that she might take a rapid turn for the worse very suddenly. I encouraged him to call his sister Ella.
"After all, wouldn't you want to know if your mom was very sick and you were not with her?" I asked. He readily agreed to that and dialed her number (I got it from the patient) as I held my breath. They talked and Ella asked to speak to me. She told me that she was an RN and so I was able to give her an update on her mom's clinical status. She had just picked up her husband from another hospital after discharge and promised to be there in half an hour. "Try and keep her alive for me, Annie" she begged. I stayed by Mary's bedside but she was rapidly going downhill. I looked at her and marveled at how her dying was bringing her two children together one last time. I now had her on multi drips. She crashed. We intubated her.
Five minutes later her daughter rushed through the ED doors. I took her and her brother to our tiny family room where they talked for the first time in 20 years and hugged each other. Tears and laughter rang as they reconnected. Later Ella came to me and told me that her sick husband was sitting in the car and she had to take him home. She gave me her number and left. James came to me and told me that he could not watch his mother die. By now she was made a DNR after they talked to the doctor. He gave me his number and left.
Another nurse relieved me for break but I stayed at the nurse's station drinking my coffee and writing my notes playing catch up. A few minutes later I heard a voice in my ear, "It is time". Probably my guardian angel Providence, I thought to myself. I quietly got up and went to her cubicle. I sat down near her and held her hand. I spoke to her softly, "Mary, you did it. You got them back together one last time. Now it is up to them. Go in peace." As I recited the Lord's Prayer, she flat lined and was gone peacefully. I sat at the nurse's station and made the calls to her children.
Mary had gone leaving her final gift behind; the gift of peace to her two children. I walked out of the ER at 12 midnight on Christmas day marveling at a mother's final act of love where she used her dying to bring her children together. Merry Christmas and God bless us all!