by Rowena Choy Henry
At the beginning of the pandemic in New York City I felt a searing sense of deja vu when I heard the stories shared by the nurses and doctors who cared for Coronavirus patients. They spoke about their shock and feelings of helplessness as they were inundated by overwhelming numbers of critically ill patients, many in respiratory failure. They scrambled to provide care as they watched their patients suffer and die alone since no families or friends were allowed at the beside because the disease was so infectious.
Their raw grief and pain leapt from the TV screen and scorched my heart, and reminded me of the many tragedies I’d witnessed in my long career as a nurse working with cancer patients, many of whom were terminal. So now I’m haunted by ghosts. They flit through my house and settle, soft as floating dust motes in my ears and whisper stories or nestle in odd corners of my mind. Their fluttering wings gently stir memories of patients I knew long ago. The remembrance of a face, a lilting voice, the wisp of a smile and I’m bereft at the reappearance of long forgotten, painful memories.
I worked for many years on a transplant unit with cancer patients with blood disorders like leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma, sarcoma, etc. Because of their disease, the chemotherapy they received, and their immunocompromised states they were among the sickest patients in the hospital, often critically ill. They were on the unit for weeks, occasionally months, and returned for further treatments, transplants, or for terminal care if their cancer proved unbeatable. So we got to know them and their families pretty well. Most of them were really nice people.They were ordinary folks, like you and me, with families and jobs and expectations that they would live out the fullness of their lives. The diagnosis of cancer came out of the blue for each and every one of them and changed their lives forever. A number of lucky patients recovered and returned home but too many did not.
One of the most distressing things for me during this pandemic has been how over 220,000* patients have died, thousands have been hospitalized, and many who have recovered are dealing with long term after affects. And yet a large number of people in the general public seem to shrug off warnings that Covid is highly infectious and refuse to take the simplest precautions. To see people gather in crowds, refuse to wear masks, or practice social distancing is unconscionable to me.
It took me awhile to realize death happens behind a curtain now. It’s neatly sanitized and unreal for most people so it’s easy to be in denial. People in this country have always been uncomfortable with death and all it’s ramifications. It’s difficult to talk about, let alone deal with.
And dying is not easy. The human body goes down fighting, right to the bitter end as one organ after another shuts down and causes a cascading effect of worsening symptoms. Watching someone die is tough and an uncomfortable reminder that we are all mortal. We nurses talk about good deaths and bad deaths. Good deaths are mercifully quick and peaceful for the patients. Bad deaths? We remember those forever.
Many years ago when I was a fairly new nurse I had a dying patient, a Mr. Becker, a nice, quiet, older gentleman who had leukemia. His bone marrow transplant had failed, he had relapsed, and now he was dying of pneumonia. The doctors didn’t expect him to last the night. Just before he slipped into a coma he told his wife of many years, that he knew he was dying.
He said to her sadly, “The Lord is coming for me but I hate to leave you.”
During the rest of that night, when we had time, another nurse and I took turns sitting at the bedside with Mrs. Becker. She was all alone. The sounds of her husband’s labored, irregular breathing, loud gasps, panting, and high pitched wheezes and choking filled the room. It was agonizing, like watching someone drown on land in slow motion as his failing lungs struggled desperately to grab more air. I’d never seen anyone die like this before and it was terrible to witness but I knew it was worse for his poor wife. He finally passed away around dawn.
Since then I’ve seen way too many patients, like Mr. Becker, die of respiratory failure in my nursing career. And right now I am haunted by the fact that this has happened, is happening, and will happen to many thousands of Coronavirus patients. It’s an unbearable thought. And my only comfort are my ghosts. They remind me, that there is life beyond this terrible time.
Rowena Choy Henry
Hematology/Oncology RN, Retired
University of California Medical Center San Francisco
*as of Oct 20, 2020 at the time of writing this the number of deaths due to Covid-19 was 220,000