I did my best to comfort her. I whispered, “It’s all right Mom. You can go. I love you.”
My mother was lucky; I was with her.
Yet, I know many die alone. Without family. Without friends.
In 2010, 2,468,435 million people died in the United States. Now, let’s just put that in perspective: 2,468,435 million people now cease to exist, at least in physical form.
We all die. Death is finality. And death is scary.
How many of those 2,468,435 million people died alone?
Well, we’ll never know because we don’t keep such records. To most of us death is just business as usual.
We’re nurses; we deal with disease, and we deal with death.
When we think of our death, which most of us try not to do, we don’t envision dying alone. However, some of us will.
When I think of my own death, I don’t want to die alone. Do you want to die alone?
If you will, walk with me; let’s face mortality. As you read the following passage, insert yourself.
Imagine this isn’t a stranger dying—it’s you dying
Currently, you’re lying in bed, surrounded by mute colored walls, machines, and cheap furniture.
The machines around you beep and buzz. They are, as expected, bugging the hell out of you.
The nurses, who you don’t really know, typically whiz by you.
Every once in a while, they’ll stop by to harass you with various pokes and prods.
“Josh, can you hear me? It looks like you’ve had a bowel movement. We’re going to clean you up.”
After the nurses are done harassing you, you lie in bed thinking about the past.
The images in your mind’s eye overwhelm you; you’re thinking about your wife, your first date, your wedding.
You’re reminiscing, remembering the birth of your daughter and your son’s graduation. You think to yourself, “God, we had some good times.”
After you crack a smile, you start thinking about regrets. “I wish I would have spent less time at the office and more time at home” and “I miss Nate; he was one hell of a friend. I wish we’d stayed in touch.”
And then, as your mind wanders, you must think about the future.
Sadly, you’ve been stricken with cancer. It’s metastasized, moved from your lungs to your brain.
Apparently, your illness is too much for your family to bear. They haven’t visited in weeks.
Alone, you think to yourself, “Surely, they care. They’re my kids for Christ’s sake. Why aren’t they here? Why haven’t they visited?”
Then, without warning, this kid comes in.
“Sir, I’m withdrawing care. A few minutes ago, we were notified by your family that they want us to withdraw your care.”
Suddenly, you’re struck with fear. “I don’t want to die.”
Out of the corner of your eye, you see the nurse turning off machines.
“Sir, we’re going to remove your breathing tube.”
Then, as soon as he appeared, he vanished. As your eyes dart around the room, you realize you’re alone.
You’ve now got a sense of impending doom, terrified of the unknown.
And then, without warning, everything fades to black.
Question 1: When we know our patient’s death is imminent and he or she dies alone, did we break our oath to “Do no Harm”?
Question 2: Should it be mandatory for healthcare facilities to provide support when death is imminent?
Question 3: What are we going to do about it?