A Shift as Death’s Attendant

“When was the last dose of epinephrine?” I ask the Tara, the recorder.

Her blood is everywhere. My gloved fingers are tacky with it.  I see it dripping off the edge of the bed, smeared across the floor, oozing from the open fracture of her right leg.

Her foot, connected to her leg only by skin and tendon, was still in a shoe. This struck me as an obscenity.

I watch blood pulse back forth in the tube draining her chest with the same rhythm as the chest compressions.

Tara’s reply makes its way through the commotion, “3 minutes ago.”

I turn to the team.  “Get ready to give another dose of epinephrine. Pete, take over chest compressions at the rhythm check.”

“Still in asystole.”

“Resume compressions, give the epinephrine.”  My voice has so little emotion. It seems to simply echo the recordings of the ACLS trainings I just completed the week before. Good timing, I think to myself.

On the Banks of the Styx

This is the second time in 48 hours I have stood at the foot of the bed, directing our modern dance with death. 

36 hours ago, it was all for show. We surmised he was dead well before his family found him. But EMS started CPR in the field, so we continued it. We invited the family in, to see us try and bring him back to life. We showed them all we could do.

We added artificial adrenaline to his veins. Then, when the lab-made adrenaline did nothing, we gave him our own – in the form of chest compressions, bagged breaths, and sweat-beaded brows. We danced with him, this newly dead man. We danced for his family.

We danced so they would know the drama and pain of the moment when we had done all we could.

He gave his body to those he left behind. He allowed us his body as salve to the grief of those who would miss him.

Dance of Death, replica of 15th century fresco; National Gallery of Slovenia

He sacrificed his body to lighten the burden of guilt of those he left. He didn’t make that choice, we and his family made it for him. I don’t know if he would have wanted it, but I found the gesture noble.

Now, 36 hours later, I am back in the same position. But this woman, she came in alive. Now, she was dead.

Only by standing at the threshold do you see how thin the veil really is.

Despite the intubation, the fluid, the pressors, the chest tube, her heart had stopped.

A code can actually have a lot of down time, especially once chest compressions have been going on for 20+ minutes.  I take a moment to let my mind slide out of the algorithm.

I look at the woman on the bed.  She is elderly.  I can hear the crunching of her multiple rib fractures with each compression.  Dying in a car crash after you have lived so long.  Such a violent death, so unexpected at that age.

“Doc, I have the family on the phone, can you talk to them?”

“Yes.” I grab the phone.  “This is Dr. HighPlains.  How are you related to Gladys?”

“I am her son, what is going on?”

“What have they told you so far?”

“Only that she’s been in a bad car accident.”

“Yes, she has. When she came in she was having difficulty breathing and had severe fractures in her legsand ribs. We had to put a tube into her lung to drain blood that was keeping her from breathing and put her on a ventilator. “

He sighed audibly in the phone.

“We started giving her blood as she was bleeding internally. Despite all of this, her heart has stopped and we are now doing CPR to try and restart her heart….I am so sorry.”

“We are currently doing everything we can do. However, in my experience, given her injuries, it is unlikely we’ll be able to get her heart restarted.”

Silence.

“Do you know what would your mother have wanted us to so in this situation?”

He regained his voice. “Well, I am her Power of Attorney. How long have you been doing CPR?”

“About 25 minutes.”

With a tired, tremble in his voice, “I need to get my head around this, Would you keep trying for 10 minutes, and then, if nothing changes, you can stop.”

So, the music continued. And again, we danced. And Gladys too, sacrificed her body for those who will grieve her. We all tried not to focus on the grating of the ends of her ribs past each other.

It is such violent dance, these days.

Time of Death, 18:00

12 minutes later, I made a phone call.

“Sir, this is Dr. HighPlains again. Unfortunately, we were unable to get your mother’s heart restarted…”

“Thank you for everything you’ve done…”

We share a few more words, and I hang up the phone.

The Strange Calm

The routine of operationalized death begins. I sit back and watch. I slowly peel off my trauma gown. The ball is over, no point keeping up the dress code.

I watch the nurses. They cover the body first. It is a body now, no longer a person, at least medico-legally. Staff has already notified the coroner. The transfer of care is in process. I no longer have a patient.

The nurses start gathering the detritus up and throwing it away. I help feebly. We draw the curtain in the trauma bay. It is customary to the give the dead their privacy.

But, whose sensitivities are we really protecting?

Breath, Light Awareness

I sit down at the computer. Documentation is impatient. I pause before I start typing. I sit and feel. I notice my breath, and my pulse.

Luxuries, I suppose.

I can feel the heaviness of death. I do not feel guilt, I do not feel shame. I did everything I could. Could we have used dopamine instead of levophed, sure. Could we have tried externally pacing when her heart rate started to drop, sure.

Nonetheless, I do not second guess. Death sits next to me in heavy silence. I do not shy away, nor do I linger in fascination. I allow my body and breath to relax in acceptance. All our paths end here.

Click…Click….Click

“Patient arrived by EMS transport in extremis….”

4 thoughts on “A Shift as Death’s Attendant”

  1. Dr. High Plains, your writing just blows me away. Your dance analogy is beyond clever and you have depicted the tragic scene of a code so beautifully (a code is not beautiful, but the heroic efforts of those involved truly is). This was a very moving piece. Thanks for sharing your talent.
    -Kristina

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I am very happy to hear it moved you. Between having the new baby and some therapy work, the initial reason for this blog (catharsis and emotional processes) has largely lapsed, so I am trying to figure out what I am doing with it and if it will become anything else. So, the encouragement helps me feel like there is a reason to come back to it.

  2. I remember this dance when I was a surgery resident with trauma call and even as a medical student when I had my hands directly on the heart of a young man who got shot.

    Even in futile moments you still do something just to say you tried, for your benefit and the patients.

    1. It is definitely the modern hospital’s death ritual. We do it because it is what you do when someone is dying and we don’t think they should. And when it is over, you feel you have played your part in the drama. Physicians wear so many hats over the course of the day: healer, priest, actor, assembly-line worker, entrepreneur, therapist. It can it hard to go back to being human at the end of the day.

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