Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Going Home for Christmas

All she wanted was to go home for Christmas.

As I looked down upon her, laying there on the hospital bed as she constantly gasped for another breath, it was clear that there was no cure. There was no earthly salvation that would bring her back to what she used to be, many years ago, in her youth.

She once was a lively, young and energetic woman. Got married. Had kids, even grand kids. But for some reason, a long time ago, she started smoking. Now she was paying the final price. End-stage emphysema with a constant air hunger that nobody could satisfy.

In between short breaths, she spoke one or two words at a time.

"Please.... help me.... I want.... to go.... home.... for.... Christmas."

I nodded in assent. Sometimes a physician cannot cure, cannot heal, and the chance for prevention long past. But this wish of hers, maybe I could help give her some comfort.

The family came in later that day and we talked. They understood that the number of mom's days were coming down to the single digits. They knew there was nothing more that medical science could do for their mother. And they agreed. Mom would spend her Christmas at home! Not in a hospital ward. Not in her hospital bed. Home!

Then, later, when doing my evening rounds on my patients, the nurse told me the family had changed their mind. Taking care of their mom at home would be simply too much, they said. It would ruin Christmas, for years to come. "We need to leave her here so she can have a nurse, a doctor, and all the medical equipment nearby," they said.

So along came Christmas, and it was my turn to cover the hospital for the group of physicians I worked with. I had two young boys at home, a loving wife to go back to. But they understood. Today would not be my last Christmas spent at the hospital.

My patient again looked at me with pleading eyes, gulping in small bites of air. It was clear to all of us that her number was now down not to days, but to hours. Terminal disease, that's what we called it. We had done absolutely everything we could medically. Those damn cigarettes, we'd say. But nevertheless, the time was close. Maybe yet I could do something for her. Maybe my calling was not to simply apply medical technology, but to give of my spirit, and share my soul. Maybe.

So I sat with her. We held hands. And the time, well it came peacefully. Without drama or fanfare, but with serenity and calmness. Our hands clasped, we spent the moment together in that empyrean realm beyond words.

She got her Christmas wish.

Peace. Friendship. And going home.