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I Danced with Death

by Caroline Hedges, MS4
Today's Christian Doctor - Fall 2007

Editor’s Note: The following journal entry was written by a doctor in training the night she first experienced death on her internal medicine rotation.

I danced with death today . . .

Death led. I had to follow.

Tonight I held the hand of a man I never knew as his heart stopped beating, his lungs stopped breathing . . . his eyes wide open, staring at the unseen.

All I know of him is that his name is Bill. Initially, he didn’t want us to tell his family he was in the hospital, even the ICU. But this week he asked for postcards to write them. To me, he didn’t look like a “Bill,” he looked like Kris Kringle with his white hair and long beard.

He died almost alone, even with twenty people around his bed. I know that to those who dance with death every day, I must seem silly or naive — misty-eyed, holding the hand of a naked man on a bed as they all pack up their tools for giving life. But what kind of life can you give without holding someone as they journey from life through death to the life beyond? Brian came to the other side of the bed as the patient’s heart rate dropped to forty, thirty, ten, nothing. He, too, felt the sadness, and held the shoulder of Kris Kringle as the world moved on.

As I type those last few lines at home, I hear from Death again. “Roy is gone.” My patient, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three days earlier, unexpectedly went into renal failure today. And now he’s gone. I hang up the phone, put my scrubs back on, and get in the car with wet hair to go cry more tears. I hold more hands. This time with one already dead and with those left behind — left with the shock and emptiness; left with an empty pillow tonight as she sleeps; left without Grandpa’s knee to play on; left without the father so dearly loved.

I had fallen in love with Roy these past few days. Not in living, but in dying. Musician, tender heart, lover of green chili and tortillas, father, brother. Rough around the edges, known and loved. I had to go back to the hospital for myself as much as for the family. I could cry here by myself, or cry with them. I had to say goodbye. To Roy, to these intimate strangers. I had to say hello to death. Again.

So how do you learn to dance these steps? What do you do when someone dies? I cried. I asked a stranger for a hug. She said she doesn’t “do hugs,” but that she’d make an exception today. I ate a piece of chocolate. Two. I told my husband, Jeremy, that we needed to have some chocolate around the house since these latter days have been hard ones. Good thing. I needed a little chocolate love tonight.

I’m finding myself showering all the time just like my surgeon husband. Now I get it. It’s a literal washing off of the hospital film, but also a spiritual symbol. There’s something to cleansing your soul in that hot water. Tonight it’s two showers. But there’s not enough heat, not enough water to wash off these tears. I search for the fuzziest pajamas I might own. I even put on my big cozy slippers, seeking some comfort. This is new. And of course, not enough.

I’m thinking tomorrow of asking the doctors how to dance with death. But I don’t know if they can tell me. It’s hard enough to show someone how to dance with life.

Roy’s wife held my hand and told me to stay soft. To keep compassion.

I will fight for it.

I will fight too for life.

I will fight in pregnant patience as I wait for the day death will die.

Someday we will dance upon death. We will lead. Death will follow.


FROM THE AUTHOR

I grew up in Colorado Springs, the daughter of an OB/Gyn and a flight attendant (Roy and Carolyn Stringfellow), which led to my love for international medicine. I received my BA in International Studies from Taylor University, am completing my MA in Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, and completed my first two years of medical school at the Medical School for International Health (a collaboration program with Columbia University in NY) in Beer Sheva, Israel.

I transferred to the University of Colorado to complete medical school after meeting and marrying my wonderful husband, Jeremy, who is a third year General Surgery resident. Following in the footsteps of my father, I am pursuing a residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology. My husband and I plan to spend our careers in sub-Saharan Africa, serving as medical missionaries in medically underserved communities.

These reflections were written at 3 a.m. during my Internal Medicine rotation, on a call night when two patients died on our service. A code was called for Bill, a man who had been in the ICU for some time, but whom I did not know. Roy was a patient that I admitted, who had sought care for back pain, and we gave him the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. We became close—Roy, his family, and I—in the few short days that I spent with them. My heart still aches and tears come to my eyes as I think about that night when I danced with death . . . .

These events led me to think about death and my role as a Christian physician in the lives of my dying patients. I want to walk through the process of dying with my patients, keeping a tender heart, without despairing. I am slowly learning what this means. But I will never stop waiting and yearning for that day when death will die—when there will be no more death, no more suffering, when Christ will bring His kingdom in its fullness. This is the hope we have, and hope does not disappoint us (Rom. 5:5).

–Caroline Hedges, MS4

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