His blue jeans hung on him as they often do on elderly men - slung under his not-too-big belly while drooping over his behind. Even so, the way he was built and the way he held himself, you could tell that this man, near his ninetieth year, had worked hard his whole life. His primary job these days, however, was to care for his ailing wife and himself.
At first he seemed worried and disoriented as I coaxed him to a seating area. My phone call undoubtedly woke him. Luckily a visiting son drove him to the hospital. His wife had “an event” and it looked dicey. The doctor explained what happened as best he could determine. The prognosis was grim. They were having trouble keeping her pulse. His patient needing him, the doctor left.
Prompted by this news, father and son had that agonizing conversation of what to do next. Other adult children arrived and conferred. Let her go. No more chest compressions. No more tubes or injections or respirator or the other violent stuff of life saving.
In hushed tones, with words of condolence, staff quickly exited with their bulky equipment. She was now tucked under the covers, looking tiny and not quite like the woman with whom I talked earlier. The scene seemed suspended - time moving more slowly in the room than the rest of the world.
His aged-spotted fingers traced her jaw. “I don’t know why you decided to do this. I need you.” I struggled to maintain my professional composure. After this long life together, was he going to remember how in inhale without her?
All partnerships come to an end at some point, leaving one of the two parties alone. Inexplicably, terrifyingly alone. For the twenty minutes that it took her body to realize that breath was unnecessary without a beating heart, he stroked the face of his partner, ran his hand through her hair, rubbed her chest. He stopped periodically to stare at her body as her brain stem triggered one more ragged, desperate breath.
The doctor reviewed for the family the biology of this woman who had been his patient for decades. He reassured her husband of the absence of suffering as he wrapped his arm around the old man’s waist. We forget that doctors grieve as well. Adult children and grandchildren circled, wet-cheeked and forever changed.
Another stroke of her face. The blankets stilled. A parting kiss. After sixty-some odd years, he somehow walked away.
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