I felt helpless, because I was. I sat at the bedside of a woman I had known for 20 years and watched her die. It was surreal, as she had seemed indestructible. She was the rock of her extended family, a supportive wife, mother and grandmother. She was a tough and strong woman, qualities I had seen her display through many physical difficulties. I had seen her sick but I had never seen her weak until the cancer came.
The cancer came fast and hard. The diagnosis had come just 2 months earlier, bringing with it severe, unrelenting pain and stealing her appetite. Just before Christmas came a severe infection that sapped her already limited strength and trapped her in her bed most of the time. She went home on hospice Christmas Eve, determined to be with her family. Remarkably she was able to sit up for a few hours and hug her grandchildren as they thanked her for their gifts, as if she was determined to not let the cancer take away Christmas.
Even though I knew she was dying I was not emotionally prepared for the moment when it came. I should have been, as I had visited her at home the day before and observed the decline. It was clear the end was approaching fast. My medical mind knew it was only a matter of days. My heart wanted to believe otherwise. When her husband called the next evening to tell me she was having trouble breathing I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to accept that she was actually going.
When I arrived a few minutes later my fears were confirmed. She was breathing as those who are about to die breathe. I struggled to stay in “doctor mode”, tamping down my emotions so I could be a source of strength for the family. I made sure she was not suffering and made sure the family knew it. It was all I had left to give. When the moment finally came my heart broke as grief flooded the room. I felt helpless again, not knowing what to say. She was loved so much and had so much love left to give.
Afterwards I felt awkward as family members hugged me and thanked me for being there. How could I not be? I had known her for over 20 years. It was the least I could do.
This weekend the family is gathering to say good-bye and to celebrate her life. I am planning on being there, to love, pray, celebrate and mourn with them, as their doctor and as a friend. She deserves it.
As you read this, please say a prayer for the family.