Health care these days isn't, for all but the elite strata of our society. It's not hard to conjure up a medical nightmare tale at the local coffee shop: Just start sharing your own recent woes at a hospital, and a host of voices will chirp in with their own experiences of neglect.
Lo and behold, I have a story to share of heroism that takes place in the health care world. A nursing friend of mine, Mary Ann, works in a Catholic hospital in San Francisco. She was on her regular evening shift last month when the police brought into the emergency room a John Doe whom they had found lying inert on a city street. This homeless man was barely conscious, and his body had entered into the final stages of toxicity and organ shut-down that precede death.
On this particular evening, not unlike most evenings at this urban San Francisco hospital, the nurses had a full slate of patients who needed attention. To Mary Ann's list was added John Doe.
Mary Ann soon realized that there would be no extraordinary medical intervention to rescue John Doe's life. Her task that evening, as she understood her nursing vocation, was to accompany her patient on his journey toward death. Mary Ann continued to make her rounds with all her patients early in the evening, and made regular stops at the bed of John Doe. She noted that the man whose name she would never come to know was aware of her presence, and responded to her words of comfort.
The other nurses on the ward that evening were moved by Mary Ann's spirit of compassion, and felt sympathy for a man dying alone, without apparent friend or family. To a person, the nurses spontaneously volunteered to add to their attendant list one of Mary Ann's patients so that she would be free to care solely for John Doe.
Mary Ann stayed by his bedside the rest of the evening. The man could not speak to her, but he applied pressure to Mary Ann's hand in response to her prayers, stories, and consolations. He remained alert until the last breath escaped from his lungs. Death came to take him at daybreak. Mary Ann uttered one final prayer of gratitude to God for walking this gentle soul home.
As Mary Ann shared this story with me, two immediate thoughts came to mind. First, it's tempting to overlook the legion of nurses, therapists, doctors, technicians, and other health care professionals who each and every day act in a way that I can only think of as heroic, or perhaps saintly. They, too, are pained by the economic system that pits revenue against care and cuts budgets along with dignity. There are individuals in the system who are trying to make a difference, and we need to honor them.
Second, as John Doe lay in his hospital bed dying, saved from a totally anonymous passing by a giving spirit, the nation was transfixed with Terry Schiavo. Americans, it seems, work out their social values through pop culture - race with O.J., gender with the Bobbits, and so on - so perhaps the 24/7 media coverage of every detail of the Schiavo family is not surprising. But it strikes me that Mary Ann, on watch at the bedside of John Doe, is the symbol for an expression of "the absolute dignity of human life" that I will carry with me.
this article impressed me as the story of someone who lives a reality most of us just like to discuss.