Sunday, November 12, 2017


It's fitting I write this post now, the weekend we observe Veteran's Day and nearly a week after the incredible wins by members of the transgender community to important local and state offices.

I was driving between patients when I received an email that we had a new admission to hospice. Nothing struck as different until I saw both that she was nearing the active phase of dying (yes, there is such a thing and it is different from the state we are normally in), and that, while a cousin was her Power of Attorney for Health, there was otherwise no family involvement. It's true some people prefer to die alone but everyone should have the option of dying with someone who cares.

I had a conference call and another patient scheduled for the afternoon, but as the other chaplain covering that area was conducting a funeral, I offered to reschedule the patient. The hospital was 90 minutes from my area, so I listened to my call while driving; my other patient was eager to reschedule as she was feeling ill.

Over the course of the call I found the new admission was transgender, probably the reason for lack of family involvement, and was dying from pneumonia and was MRSA positive. This means gowning and gloves both for our protection and other patients. She was still in the ICU when I arrived and was unresponsive until I sat beside her and touched her arm, at which point she jolted awake. She was bony and angular and her clavicle stood out above her hospital gown.

I explained who I was, touching my ID so she could read if she couldn't understand. She motioned for a wipeboard near her. She couldn't speak any longer. She asked if I could speak up. I said of course. I asked if she was afraid and she didn't respond or look my way, so I asked if she'd like to hold my hand. In response she put her large bony hand in my gloved one, which I then covered with my other hand.

That was the only time I was to see her conscious. She drifted off to sleep a few minutes later and I held hands with her until she twitched hers away. A short while later the nurses came to move her to another room, outside the ICU, and she fidgeted several times in what seemed discomfort rather than pain. I made plans with my family fellow chaplain to relieve me at 9.

Imagine then my surprise when a small woman walked into the room room and said hello. She turned out to be a friend of the patient who was called by the cousin. She had driven from work in Stevens Point, about an hour west, to sit with her for the night. I got her up to speed, contacted the rest of my team, and headed home.

The next morning I called her friend, with whom I'd exchanged numbers, and found her friend had lived through the night. But she hadn't regained consciousness and wasn't likely to. I arranged to relieve her at 1. But when I arrived she had been replaced by another friend who had brought with her a local minister. He agreed to provide a memorial for her. I offered to continue to sit with her but they wanted to remain beside her another few hours.

I sat in the hallway and made phone calls and emails. Eventually they left for food and some rest. I sat holding my patient's hand. I had found things about her in the meantime, that she had been dishonorably discharged from the Navy, she had served during Desert Storm, and had prized the jacket she retained. She had been married and divorced twice, and had done something that put her beyond the love of her siblings and children. There would be no sudden appearance by family.

When I sat with her this last time I told her she was surrounded by people who love her enough to be with her. There might be an afterlife and there might not. But there was nothing she could have done to put her beyond the love of what she might join after her death, God, The Eternal, the universe, whatever it might be. She was as worthy of love as anyone.

Her friend and the pastor returned at six and I made ready to go. Before leaving I held her hands again and repeated her worthiness. She squirmed a little, perhaps saying goodbye. I left while they sang to her. A few hours later I received an email that she had died with her friend at her side.

This is why I do what I do.

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