Thursday, September 3, 2009

As I lay dying

DISCLAIMER: This post may be disturbing to some. Reader discretion is advised

So, many of you know that I work as a hospital chaplain a few nights a week. In that role, I have been present, in the room even, with families as their loved ones have passed on. Sometimes, it happens quietly, as those assembled share stories and memories. The machines that monitor the patient’s vital signs display numbers that continue to fall until the only sounds are gentle sobs and hands rubbing on backs, offering comfort in grief.

I often get comments from people about how tough my job must be. “Man, I couldn’t do your job…” or, “How do you deal with being around death so much?” I usually reply something about how it can be difficult, but it has its own rewards. This is true, but each situation is unique. Some deaths really bother me. I hate the “failure to thrive” deaths on the maternity wards. Those are the worst for me. Next up are trauma deaths that involve an innocent party (mostly drunk driving ones). A lot of deaths that I get called for, I am able to focus my attention on the living. They are the ones that I am usually called to comfort. It is rare that the patient actually needs me. Most of the time, when I am called by the nursing staff because of an imminent death, the patient is so far gone that there is no interaction. I am called to comfort the family. That is a lot easier for me, interacting with the living. It is usually pretty emotionally charged and sometimes there are deep-seated family issues that pervade the room and stifle the grief, but those times are rare. All in all, I think I manage to walk a fine line between being emotionally involved myself and remaining calm and stable for the family. I usually manage to pull it off. I don’t lose sleep, but am able to climb back into my bed after being called out in the middle of the night with a peaceful heart, knowing that God used me to be his arms of comfort to a family in a crisis situation.

But last night, whew. I had a full fledged panic attack. It wasn’t even linked to any one experience, but I just couldn’t hold it back. First of all, I was really tired. It had already been a long day and I was getting ready to go to bed at about 2am (a typical bedtime for me, being a night owl). As usual, I went to check on MH and Ethan, to make sure that their blood glucose was in range overnight. As it turned out, MH was 70 (too low) and Ethan’s registered HIGH on the glucometer, meaning that it was over 600 (WAAYY too high). I woke MH up and gave her some juice and crackers to get her BG back up and woke Ethan up to have him check his ketones and drink some water. Then I had to stay up for another hour so I could check their numbers again. Anyhow, by the time I stumbled up to my bedroom, it was 4am. My mouth was really dry and as I lay in bed, I did that little trick to try and create some saliva in my mouth so I could get my palate to be comfortable. It didn’t work. It felt kind of the way it does when you have a cold or sinus infection and you swallow over and over trying to make things go where they should go, but you can’t get your mouth and throat to feel right. Am I making any sense? Anyhow, suddenly, I imagined that I was laying in a hospital bed, dying. Awake and aware, but unable to communicate that my mouth was dry. All my memories of seeing people in the ICU with tubes in their noses, BiPAP machines taped to their faces, mouths held open and gasping for breath as they struggled to get air into their bodies… they rushed into my head and I couldn’t stop myself from feeling terrified. My rational brain asserted itself and said, “Jeff, you’re not in a hospital. You can get up and get a drink of water.” But for some reason, I just kept lying there, waves of panic gripping me because I imagined myself with my hands in restraints in a hospital bed. Some patients get their hands tied down because they unconsciously pull at their IVs and tubing.

Again, I imagined myself as a person dying, tube in my throat, preventing me from talking or being able to close my mouth, the dryness in my mouth unbearably annoying and I, unable to slack the thirst, panicking. I couldn’t stop my brain from taking me into a scene where I was surrounded by people crying over me, but not really seeing or hearing me as I silently pleaded with them to get me some ice chips or water or something.

This lasted for about 5 minutes last night. I even sat up in bed and tried to get a grip on my overactive imagination. Finally, I was able to generate enough saliva to swallow and get my mouth feeling back to normal and the panic-y feeling went away. But for five minutes, it was terrifying.

Does this weird stuff happen to other people or is it a by-product of the hospital work? What do you think?

1 comment:

clinton said...

I would like to imagine that the type of experience you had can be just as common among other people. However, what other people "imagine" could also be reminiscent of their job situation (yours came from the hospital and mine could be sitting at the computer desk with tons of boxes falling on top of me). In all good respect, this whole mind trip you had is thought-provoking. Maybe the weight of your job took its toll on your subconscious and it temporarily overtook your senses. By the way, I have a blog now! It's called "Wherever He Leads, I Will Follow" and it's at Talk to you soon, Jeff.