Life and Death and and an Open Heart

About 24 hours ago the nation was rocked with news of the worst mass shooting in recent history, when a gunman opened fire on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Families didn’t know if their loved ones had survived the horror, and grief and rage and political posturing was rampant.

On the same day, I learned that a dear friend’s father passed away, quietly taking his last breath as he held his wife’s hand.

As a healthcare provider, I am confronted daily with life and death. Serving in a hospital setting means I get to see people at their worst, masks gone. Last night, I was struck by the wide divergence in how providers approach crisis and death. While news outlets scramble for the latest juicy morsel to boost their ratings, I get up close and personal with death.

Report from Provider A:

Ohhh you’re gonna love this one. He’s a frequent flyer, Done so many drugs I swear he’s got oatmeal for brains. I’m tough though – he knows better than to ask me for anything for withdrawals because he probably doesn’t want to hear the lecture any more. One of these days they’re going to pick him up dead. When you go in there, be ready for the stench – I swear he never takes a shower! Go on, go see him. We’re taking bets on which body part he’s going to say is in pain to try to get some narcotics. This is your brain on drugs hahaha…

Report from Provider B:

Shhhhh he’s finally sleeping. This patient is just 43 and had neck surgery a couple of days ago, then had a seizure during recovery and aspirated. Now he’s battling pneumonia and might not make it. Sometimes he’s oriented, most times he isn’t. He’ll get quite agitated but responds well to firm touch and gentle conversation. We’re medicating as much as we can to reduce his discomfort and anxiety without depressing respiration. We’ll be trying for a second IV site soon and will need your help with that – he doesn’t have many good veins.

What? Oh yes, his right side is affected from an old stroke. We think it was from excessive IV drug use. But he is such a resilient man – we’re hoping he pulls through. I’m so glad you’re here to help care for him.

So here’s a question for you. If you were the PARENT, which report would you hope was given about your son or daughter?

In the last week, I have held in my arms a woman dying of lung cancer (after smoking for 40+ years, she quit, but it was too late), a young adult who tried to kill herself by drinking antifreeze (it was touch-and-go, but she was discharged… determined to try again), and a man permanently disabled due to years of drug use. In each case, I watched providers struggle with how to handle the knowledge that each crisis was preventable, was a direct result of poor “lifestyle choices”, and that their care was pretty much useless in the long term.

Yet, I remain committed to hope. To joy. To gentle compassion. Even when – perhaps especially when – its the patient’s “fault” that they’re in a medical crisis.

I’m not naive. I’ve worked in some capacity in health care for a very long time. I’ve watched providers become jaded and angry. I’ve been witness to crass jokes as some attempt to use dark humor to guard their hearts.

Yet still, I remain committed to hope. To joy. To gentle compassion.

If you’re a provider, angry at the futility of your service, frustrated by a system that seems to use you up and ask for more, I invite you to explore the beauty of an open heart. Will it hurt more? Absolutely! But way back when you first decided to enter the field of health care, you CARED.

Find that.

Find the gentleness in your heart to reach out. Again. Even when you are certain it won’t make a difference.

Because even those who created their own crisis deserve compassionate care. And your heart will be better for feeling the pain, holding the dying, turning away from the jokes and anger and political posturing, and simply serving.

With an open heart.

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