Thursday, March 26, 2015

My First Dead Body

I assumed she asked because besides being a hospice volunteer,  I was a medical student and wouldn't get spooked by a dead body.  She probably didn't realize that it was my first week of classes and I hadn't experienced much yet.

She walked into the room with her head slightly bowed forward.  She was physically and emotionally exhausted.  Because of a scheduling snafu, there was only one nurse for the entire hospice floor.  This was her second patient to die that day.

She bayed me to come forward and help prepare the body.  I stared down at the lifeless figure.  I don't remember all the details, but I will never forget the stillness.   It was the first of many occasions where I would marvel at the appalling lack of motion that separates the living from the dead.

We were silent.  When she wanted me to perform some task or another she would point with her fingers.  I think we put an ID tag on the toes.  Maybe we cleaned the body and removed any remaining catheters.  The family had come and gone so there were no cosmetic issues of concern.

And then she took out the bag.  We gently rolled the body over and placed it cleanly underneath.  We pulled out the openings around the torso. Then we tucked in the limbs and head.  Finally she started at the toes and zipped up the bag from the bottom until she came to the face.

She stopped.

For me this was the shell of a man who I had never known.  But for her, for her, he was a breathing, feeling human being.  One whose hand she had held, whose family she had comforted, and whose excrement she had helped clean from his weakened and frail body.  She went to close the zipper but she couldn't.  I put one hand on her shoulder and reached over with the other removing her fingers.

She knelt down in the corner of the room and sobbed as I closed the bag.

Through years of medical education and practice there are many images burned into the depths of my soul.  But when I think of my first experience with a dead body, I don't see a body at all.

I see a nurse.

A humble, grieving, beautiful symbol of all that our profession can be.

3 comments:

The Van Deventers said...

Jordan, I always enjoy your sensitive and patient oriented blogs, a firm follower am I.

This one touched me because I was an evening 'float' at Presbyterian NY in the 1950's.

So many patients seem to die just before shift change it was my job to prepare the body for their trip to the morgue. All of this medical student's comments are true. The silence, the grief from both caregivers and family (although they weren't around as we were doing our work).

Thank you for providing some insight into what most families never know.

Sue

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the honor and beauty given in this .... to nurses, to deceased human beings in honor of their lives and death and to those loved one, loving them, from whom they part.

Even in not knowing someone prior to his/her death, I see the honor and dignity given to the body in this time.

People, in vulnerability of the body, mind and emotions entrust so much to health care givers and givers of care.

May we honor and respect that always ....

Simon R. Downes said...

Thank you for your article. It reminded me of how I felt when I experienced the sudden death of man I was working with as an ER tech in San Francisco in '92.

He came in with shortness of breath, and we started him on a breathing treatment. Calmly, we were exchanging a few words, but as his chest began to tighten, I called for the nurse, and then the attending. Within 15 minutes of him coming in, I was doing chest compressions, and despite our best efforts, he passed away. It was my job to attend to the body, and to take him to the morgue. I continued talking with him the whole time. The next day, I was training two nursing students on care of the deceased..and we ended up again in the morgue. He was there...and I felt his presence very strongly. Although my experience is limited, this one touched me deeply, as I have asthma (I do not remember the name of his condition)