Sunday, April 17, 2005

this week's issue of Sojourner

Dying and dignity

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.


sistercdr said...

I am so glad you shared this.  Your final sentence really says it all.

daleneentenmann said...

Beautiful story, thank you for sharing this with us all. This is my first time to your journal, one I will visit often indeed. I am reading through your other journal entries now. Delightful and inspiring! Dalene of AHH at

achatterbox29 said...

It is a shame that we as a society are so afraid to extend such compassion to one another.  I do often wonder why talking about Death and Dying is so taboo in American society.  I am a nurse too and have seen how peaceful a "good death" can be.  Thanks for the wonderful story.  Now John Doe has touched us all.

blondepennierae said...

This is such a beautiful story.  Thank you so much for sharing it with all of us.  I have an irrational fear of doctors and nurses, from my childhood, and this story makes that fear a little less irrational.  Thank you, Thank you.   I also want to thank you for the lovely wods that you have left in my comments sections.  It's fun to make new friends.  Pennie

justaname4me2 said...

It's good to look past the what the media pushes in front of us and find the true nature of humanity. Beautiful story.

gaboatman said...

This is a story of compassion and humanity and is very moving.  Thank you for sharing it with us.  Also, I'd like to thank you for your nice comment in my new journal.  I am adding your journal to my alerts and will be back often.

judithheartsong said...

this is inspiring. judi

karebear4x4 said...

THANK YOU SO MUCH for sharing this story.   There are not enough of these stories in our media or by word of mouth.  LIFE, regardless of who's, is really what it's all about.  Nothing more, nothing less! ~kbear

courtenaymphelan said...