I took care of him for 18 shifts. I had a few days of this month, but only a few. So I took this patient, and I kept getting him back. He was on a one-way train to comfort care, and I was there for the ups and downs of it all. The family planned to withdraw on Ned*, my patient, on a Wednesday. That was one of my very few days off... but I came in and worked anyway. I guess I felt like I needed to be there. I was honored that the family wanted me there, but it was more than that. I wanted to make absolutely sure that his death was given priority. That he would not suffer. That his family would have everything they needed.
I didn't know Ned, not in life. I knew him as a premonition of death. Eyes sunken into a skeleton face. Ascites and yellow-tinted skin. That gulping motion that accompanied each breath, even on a vent. All he would say to me was that he couldn't breathe. That he was in pain. That he knew he was in the hospital. During one particularly lively day he mouthed very clearly, "get me the hell out of here". I gathered from his family that he was a stubborn, cantankerous man but very loyal, inspiring fierce devotion from his close friends and family, and more than a few tears at his demise.
But I wasn't there to know about Ned's life. I wasn't there to honor it, either. That was his family's job. I was there to ease his way into death, just as 67* years ago some nurse or midwife or pair of doctor's hands eased his way into life. Just as they did not need to know the details of his life-to-be, I did not need to know the life he had. I was, in that moment, mother and sister and daughter to him, whoever he had been, wherever he was going. I was there to honor his death.
I was there to withdraw on him, and there for his last moments of consciousness. His heart continued to beat (as many stubborn hearts do) long past my shift. I placed my hand in his before I left, and said, "Godspeed Ned." Off you go, out of this world and into the mystery of the Great Beyond. The place we will all eventually find, the place my daughter already knows.
Godspeed, and it was my honor to be your pair of hands on your way out of this great human existence.
*not his real name or age