I couldn’t be with him when he died.

Our ambulance hurtled up the hill. Rudely interrupted from our planned trip to the hardware store to suss out some supplies for my partner’s ongoing renovations, we had been called to a cardiac arrest.

In my enthusiasm, I began to go over the protocol for an arrest, forming a plan and confirming what I would do when.

Turning to the intensive care medic driving I asked ” what do you think mate, 75 year old, would you like to go a tube straight up, or run an I-gel for awhile”?.

With the apathy of a man who has seen far too many dead people, he simply replied, “aw, let’s just see when we get there….. check first to see if we even need to work on him”.

Oddly enough, they don’t teach you the C of ‘Check to see if there’s any chance of getting this person back/ do they want to come back part’ of an arrest. But then again DRCABC really doesn’t flow as well on a poster does it.

Eventually we pulled up in front of a small townhouse in one of the nicer retirement villages.  Grabbing the monitor and O2 I was met by a surprisingly calm elderly woman. “He’s gone dear” she said tearfully, guiding me the short distance to the bedroom where an elderly man was lying in the bed. “Terminal cancer y’ know, he didn’t want no fuss or nothing”. As I checked for what I knew to be the absent pulse and placed our monitor leads on, my partner tactfully queried “would he like to be resuscitated”? “Oh no dear” was the reply, “they just told us to call you when it happened”.

Barely able to contain his relief at not having to work another arrest, my partner grabbed the kits and began to load up the car again.

Having verified that our patient was in fact dead (surprisingly important and potentially embarrassing should you screw it up), I went into the living room for the conversation with the family.

It went as well as you’d expect. But whilst the patient’s brother sat quietly and sipped at his tea slowly letting it set in, the patient’s wife began to slowly unravel.

“I knew I shouldn’t have gone into town. I knew I shouldn’t have left him. He was awake and fine…. and I, I had to go into town to get some medicine for him and  I was only gone 10 minutes……”

Then staring me in the eyes, she said something I will never forget.

“54 years of marriage, 54 years we were together and I couldn’t be with him when he died. I couldn’t be there”.

There is no magic word you can say to make that person’s pain go away. There are very few things you can say to help them deal with a situation. No one teaches you how to respond when someone says something that you know means they’ve just taken a weight onto their shoulders that they’ll carry for the rest of their lives.

So you say some nice things like that they can’t blame themselves and how they were out doing something to help. You let them make you the cup of tea you don’t feel like drinking and you talk them through the process of what happens next. Phone calls are made and for the first time in 54 years at the end of that day our patient’s wife goes to her bed alone, and once again, we go home to our family’s and when we’re asked about our day, say “it was fine thanks, how was yours?”

 

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