Your first crush, your first kiss, your first time driving a car.
This summer, I am doing a chaplaincy internship at a hospital. I have been around a lot of life, a lot of healing, and surprisingly few instances of death and patients at the end of their lives. I have sat in the hallway, waiting as a family said goodbye to their grandmother as she was taken off of a ventilator and died, which meant my job was to wait and be a comfort to the family.
But you always remember your first.
I remember the first time I was in a room with a dead body (my grandfather), and I remember the first time I was with someone when they died (my grandmother).
And I will always remember my first patient who died.
He was admitted to the ER the night before I got my assignment to my floor. It turns out that he had melanoma which had metastasized all over, a terminal diagnosis in his case. He had received this diagnosis almost a month prior. But he did not want to bother anyone, so he stopped communicating with his family. A week before his admission to the ER, his parents came out from the east coast and surprised him. They found that he had barely eaten anything since his diagnoses. He had come to terms with his prognosis. They had not. A week later, he fell and ended up in our ER. Another chaplain saw him, and suggested I follow up.
That began his three week stay at the hospital. In those three weeks, the whole team saw his mother go through a process of grief the likes of which I had never seen. I also was exposed to many aspects of the hospital I knew existed but never imagined. We met with the ethics team. We dealt with setting up, and then stopping, a transfer to another city. We had social workers on the case, and nearly every part of the team played a role.
I only had a few interactions with him. I kept trying to see him, but it never worked out. The first time I tried, the mother blocked me and just needed someone to talk to, so I provided that punching bag for her. Other times I visited he was sleeping. Once, I visited him, he peeked out from under his beanie, saw me, and while he declined a visit then, when I asked if he wanted me to come back, he nodded and smiled. The last time I visited, he did not want me to visit, and did not want me to come back. I respected that and wished him well.
He ended up holding on for longer than we figured he would. I think, though, part of that is due to the stress around his stay. There was always something going on. First his parents wanted to transfer him. Then when that did not happen they wanted to place him in hospice. Then they put up a fight about that. And at the end of the day, I truly believe that if someone asked him, "What do you want to happen?" and someone had carried out his wishes, he may have died with a little more peace in his heart. The team even remarked one day at our daily meeting that it seemed like he was holding on to something. We could only guess what that was.
From what I was told, there was sadness and some anger when he died. It is hard to determine who his family was truly angry at: the hospital team, the process that led to this point, God, their son who hid his condition, or something else altogether. Grief is powerful. And each case is different. Each person mourns in a different way. My first patient taught me to be a compassionate listener and, perhaps more importantly, to pay attention to a patient's wishes.
My first patient died Monday morning at 4 AM.
Zichrono livracha - may his memory be remembered for a blessing.