The black pager at my waist chimed its three pitch ring just after I returned from lunch. I called the number on the screen and spoke with an ICU nurse who asked me to support a woman whose husband had taken a sudden turn for the worse. The nurse told me the wife was visibly shaking and unsteady. The wife could not control her grief, switching between hard crying and anger. It was clear to the nurse that she was very anxious. When the nurse suggested the wife see a doctor about something to help her anxiety, she told the nurse she had already taken a Xanax. The wife requested a chaplain to come and pray with her.
When I arrived at the room, it was empty except for a man lying somewhat rigidly on his back in the bed. Like many patients in comas, his eyes were slightly open but still. Tubes were coming out of his mouth and nose. Lines ran from his chest to several monitors. There were IVs on the back of both hands; purple bruising framed the tape anchoring tubes to dry skin. After a few minutes standing quietly with the patient, the wife returned.
She was a tall woman, that was my first thought. She crossed to the far side of the bed and greeted her unconscious husband. She looked up at me, pulling a knit cardigan tight around her waist, tears running from both eyes. She reached up with a damp tissue to blot the tears away. The wife was smartly dressed though a bit rumpled. Her short white hair had patches of gray at the temples and she wore clear, plastic-rimmed bifocals with large round lenses. The bright hospital lighting reflected rectangular patches off the lenses, sometimes blocking me from seeing her eyes behind the glass. In any other context my first impression of her would have been a steely strength she carried in her straight back and bony, wide shoulders. I quickly realized that this woman’s appearance, the thick sweater, straight posture and sturdy glasses hid an acute fragility. As I listened to her story, it was though I could hear her cracking, like a small chip slowly splintering and spreading across a window, like ice audibly fracturing centimeter by centimeter. She was brittle and threatening to break. Her loss was recounted in great detail. She recited her story as a tragedy told by the most committed playwright.
The week before, Mrs. Glass’ husband had been giddily playing in the sand and the waves with his two granddaughters. He had to run to keep up with them and it seemed his energy was limitless. He was healthy and active. Before the beach trip they had spent two weeks traveling in Europe. They had so many dreams to still accomplish and Mr. Glass was, as usual, breezing through life at a good clip she told me. Or at least he had been just 15 days ago. Now he was in a coma, on a ventilator. She was intently focused on the great things they had lost in so short a time. She could tell me about each day in the hospital and recount all of the mundane events and occurrences of hospital life like a detailed memoir. Mr. Glass caught a cold which turned into pneumonia and that, combined with a preexisting heart condition, made the doctors hesitant to release him. He seemed fine she said, sick, but fine. After a few days of bland walls, blander food, the monotonous beep of the heart monitor, stumbling coughs and endless TV, Mr. Glass asked Mrs. Glass, “Get me out of here.” She suggested they follow the doctors’ advice and remain until he was clear of the pneumonia. The next day began Mr. Glass’ gradual declined. The day before I was paged, he suddenly coded. The staff was able to stabilize Mr. Glass, but he was in a coma, on a vent, unable to communicate.
I was there, still listening to Mrs. Glass, when an Oncologist came to tell her that they found Leukemia. It was shocking and paralyzing news to her, so much so that she had to brace hers hips on the bed rails to remain standing. She let out a sob. I reached across Mr. Glass’ body and took her hand. She quickly stood up, still gripping my hand, her other one busy wiping at her running nose and eyes. She shot questions at the doctor. She asked him how this could have happened when her husband had been so healthy two weeks ago. It was just a cold, she said. She was antagonistic and rude but that seemed understandable, allowable.
When the doctor left, Mrs. Glass dropped my hand and again erupted with emotion and continued with what my supervisor would call a “litany of loss.” Her grief had her blaming the doctors, the nurses, the weather, the cold Mr. Glass had caught. It wasn’t fair. She stood across the bed and raged and the injustice of her husband’s situation. How could this have happened? Look at all these tubes and monitors in him, she said. I could just hurt somebody, she said forcefully, as she raised and shook a clenched fist in the air between us. Oh, don’t think I’ll hurt you, Mrs. Glass said, releasing some of her anger with a laugh. I smiled at her and told her I knew she wouldn’t hurt me, that I understood her anger. We both looked at Mr. Glass.
“This is my fault,” she said.
“Why,” I asked? “How could this be your fault? “
“He asked me to get him out of here. I didn’t. I should have because look at what’s happened. This wouldn’t have happened if I had taken him home. “
She looked up at me, tears building on her lids, her mouth quivering. There was no glare on her glasses then. She looked straight into my eyes and said, “This is my cross to bear, isn’t it?”
to be continued…