I had just set up my post at the volunteer desk and was midway through the process of screening a visitor, asking, “Have you had any recent fevers, cough, …” when one of the hospice nurses, Nyah, quietly interrupted me. “Excuse me, would you be willing to go sit with 12?” “She isn’t doing well.” My heart raced, but I responded with an unwavering, “Yes, of course I can!” I walked briskly to the end of the corridor and found the patient’s room. I was greeted with a flashy, yellow sign, indicating a positive C. difficile infection, so I took appropriate precautions prior to entering her room.
Upon entering, a CNA met my gaze and knowingly passed on what seemed like everything I needed to know, without even saying a word. Her face told me the patient unfortunately did not have long. I pulled up a chair and tried to get to know more of who “12” was. Glimpsing up at her care team board, I saw a familiar scene: in faded dry erase marker, there were multiple family members’ names and their phone numbers scrawled all over. Some left messages, “Get well soon, Grandma!” and “We love you!” others drew little happy faces, stick-figure drawings of themselves, or sketches of dogs and hearts. I gave May’s hand a light squeeze with my gloved hand. The board also listed May’s recent medications, her husband’s name, and Lutheran, as her religious affiliation. May struggled to breathe, showing signs of a Cheyne-Stokes breathing pattern, but I asked her if she would like me to pray for her. She attempted to respond, but her labored breathing allowed her only a nod. For a brief second, May was able to hold eye contact, and in her eyes, I could see that she wanted relief.
Immediately, fear washed over me. What if my prayer wasn’t what May wanted to hear? How do I know what her specific requests are right now? I squeezed her hand again, before praying for peace and comfort for May. My prayer lifted, and again, I gave her hand a light squeeze. This time, May’s eyes were unable to focus on me, and I could tell she was steadily slipping towards death. I wondered deeply who May truly was and wished I had a time machine, bringing me back to the highlights of her years. A septuagenarian, I couldn’t help but think how she was affected by the pandemic in her final year of life. Without knowing May and the intricacies of her life leading up to this precious moment, it was impossible for me to know just how profound of an impact masks, gowns, face shields, and other measures of PPE had on her life. I wanted so desperately to remove my glove and provide skin-to-skin contact in her last moments. Instead, I offered a few more words of comfort and solace to May, and mostly just sat in silence with her, as her breathing drifted and her skin began to pale. Her limbs grew limp. A tear rolled down my cheek, burying itself in my mask.
Suddenly, the door opened, and in walked May’s husband, Gene, bewildered by May’s lifeless body. His partner of almost 50 years had only just passed, and he was in shock. He abruptly dropped his cane, which clanged off the ground with a stark metallic pitch that reverberated through my bones. Gene’s words faltered as he looked towards me, “I, … Who…?” And then stuttered, “Mmmay?” I didn’t respond, knowing that his thoughts would assemble in time. I excused myself to give Gene space to mourn, and later that evening, I was approached by Gene and May’s daughter. She introduced herself as Sharon, and then she asked me if she could hear about my last moments with her mom. Her puffy, swollen eyes, and long solemn face peered into my soul, as I provided details of the experience, praying, squeezing her hand, and trying to comfort May with my presence. May’s daughter beamed with gratitude and burst into tears, stating that her mother had been isolated for months leading up to her death, due to COVID-19 restrictions at the nursing home she was in. I could tell she wanted nothing more than to be with her mother and to be the one to hold her hand, but she managed to say, through a river of tears, “Thank you for being there for her. And praying with her– that was so kind of you.” When I met Sharon’s eyes to respond, an outpouring of tears fell down our cheeks, almost in unison, knowing that an act of mourning had just brought us closer.
Grief is a nearly palpable feeling felt deep within, and after May’s death, I carried her loss physically, mentally, and emotionally. The staggering death toll due to the novel coronavirus over the past few years is a constant reminder of grief. With every number that ticks across the television screen, there is likely someone, somewhere, grieving their loss. Shared mourning may assuage fears of some, reconciling to others, and aggravate opinions of a few. The process of remembering individuals who have died, either to direct or indirect factors related to the pandemic can bring healing. The connection May and I had in her final moments revealed that sitting close, hand in hand, did not require a familial relationship, only a bond that unites us all — as human beings. As continue to move toward the resolve of the COVID-19 global pandemic, a cloud of enduring grief hangs low, and we continue to mourn. May we draw upon our shared experiences, recall the power of presence, and surpass traditional boundaries to create new connections with one another.
The patient’s name and other details have been changed to protect patient privacy.
About the Author
Mikayla Brockmeyer is a second-year osteopathic medical student at Des Moines University. She enjoys narrative medicine, reading for pleasure, and trying new ice cream flavors.