I walk into room 616. The lights are off, some sunlight is streaming in through the cracked window shutters on the other side of the room. Mrs. West is peacefully resting on the hospital bed. Her neck extended, mouth wide open, eyes softly closed. Her face looks as if she is soundly asleep dreaming of cool nights watching the sunset over the expansive ocean. She is squarely resting on her shoulders and her hips with the head of the bed propped up to about a 45-degree angle. The nasal canula is whistling faintly as it rests under her nose. The monitors were turned off days ago once we saw her breathing pattern change. The time between each breath has become longer. The effort at which it takes her tiny body to draw in each breath seems considerable. Mrs. West has heart failure that has reached a point in which her body can no longer compensate. She became unresponsive about 5 days prior. She is 84 years old with a life full of adventure, vibrance, good times, and bad. In the last 5 days no one has visited Mrs. West other than myself, Mrs. West’s nurse, the hospital chaplain, and the palliative care physician. She, like so many others, is dying alone in a hospital surrounded by strangers who know very little about her.
As I sit there next to her, a woman I met less than a week ago, I imagine what her eyes have seen, what her hands have touched, what her nose has smelled. Was Mrs. West happy with the life she had lived? Was she fulfilled? Did she pursue her passions? As I sit next to her, I watch her chest rise and fall wondering if this will be the last one. Even though she has not responded to any stimulus in days, I don’t want her to be alone when she does take her last breath. Even though I know very little about Mrs. West she has touched me in a way that I don’t know if I can describe. Sitting there, I reflect on how death is portrayed in American culture. It is dramatic, traumatic, and full of action. The situation I sit in currently is a stark contrast to what I thought death would be like. I find myself wondering who Mrs. West impacted in her life. I’m wondering if there are things she never got to do that she always wanted to do. I’m wondering if someone will miss Mrs. West when she does finally take her last breath. In turn, I repeat these questions, but replace Mrs. West with me. Who have I impacted in my life? What things have I not done that I have always wanted to do? Will someone miss me when I die? Witnessing mortality multiple times now has made me consider my own mortality. Working in the medical field, I think it is inevitable to think about your own fragility and mortality. There will be a patient that reminds you of yourself and make you think about, excuse my corniness, the meaning of life.
Later that afternoon, Mrs. West took a gasp for air. The time between that and the next gasp could have filled the Grand Canyon. The only noise that remained in room 616 was the quiet whistle of the oxygen flowing into her nose and the cars whizzing by down on the street below. Mrs. West peacefully left this world with a stranger to hold her hand. I may have not known Mrs. West, but she has impacted my life; she has touched me in a way that has shaped how I think, who I react, and what I do with my time. So to you Mrs. West, rest in peace and thank you from the bottom of my heart.