When I was a student nurse several years ago, I had a patient — a man in his forties — who died in my arms. My eyes were glued to his wife’s anxious face the whole time while performing CPR on him. He was reported to have accidentally hit his head on the gutter for being too drunk.
I could tell from their tattered clothes and extremely lean physique that the couple was impoverished. No able wife will bring her dying husband to that densely crowded emergency room of a public hospital where patients only receive medical attention from the busy personnel when they are about to die.
That’s the first rule of triage: thou shall not waste time on lives with the least chance of survival.
The wife never left my side while caring for her husband, except when I needed her to buy some medications. Nonetheless, only few words were spoken. I mean, what do you tell a woman knowing that her husband — the man with whom she shared with the last twenty years or so of her life — will soon die? How do you tell her that a few minutes from now, she might need to re-plan her whole life because she would be on her own again? How do you prepare them for such a devastating news? How do you help cushion the blow?
I said nothing. All I relayed were doctor’s orders and medical prescriptions to which the poor, desperate woman helplessly complied with. Everything just to extend her husband’s life.
A few doses of epinephrine and cycles of CPR later, the man was pronounced dead. I remember being instructed by the doctor to ask the wife to join me deliver the lifeless body on the stretcher to the morgue located in the basement. As we enter the elevator, the wife begins to sob out tears she had been holding back the whole time.
I sensed sadness.
I sensed hopelessness.
I sensed anger.
Anger from her lack of wherewithal to demand better treatment for her husband which could have saved his life.
I so badly wanted to comfort the woman. But I couldn’t find the right words to say. Her husband is dead. The man was just vivaciously singing karaoke a few hours ago, full of life. Now, he’s but a lifeless body.
And so I said nothing. As the doors of the elevator broke open, the woman hastily wiped her tears away, as if the harsh world forbids her showcase of emotions. As if her poverty doesn’t afford her the right to cry.
We dragged the stretcher to the isolated room full of other dead bodies. I briefly glanced at the wrinkly face of the woman. She was just there, staring at her husband’s body nonchalantly, as if waiting for someone to tell her that she’s allowed to grieve. I gave her a few minutes of silence.
“Ma’am, tara na po. May kailangan pa po kayong bayaran sa cashier” (“Ma’am, let’s go. You still need to pay some bills at the cashier”) were my last words to her.
We left the morgue. I let her lead the way. To this day, I have never forgotten that image in my mind: the silhouette of a frail, old woman, alone, decrepitly walking down a corridor to the elevator door.
Looking back now, I wish I said more to that frail, old woman. I wish I offered my shoulders for her to cry on. I wish I had the strength to tell her that it was ok to cry. Or perhaps told her that she wasn’t alone praying in her mind while her husband was being revived. Because I was there, subconsciously saying a prayer as I intently and vigorously pumped her husband’s chest… hoping that somehow, my thoughts would intervene in the flow of fate.
But I said nothing. That frail, old woman was alone in her ordeal. And it’s an image that will haunt me for the rest of my life.