I wish I could always claim altruism when taking care of dying patients. But the truth is, there are times other priorities in my life try to stake a claim in my work.

This happened last week at work. I had met with a lovely family to discuss our plan for their loved one who was on a ventilator, not responding, and likely permanently stuck like this.  He’d had the most aggressive care possible, but it seemed brain damage was irreversible. In the family meeting they told stories of his great accomplishments and were very clear that living a life on a vent with artificial nutrition through a feeding tube in his stomach, in a nursing home somewhere, was not something he would have wanted.

The decision was made then to withdraw the aggressive measures in place. We’d remove the ventilator and antibiotics and support him as his body transitioned to a dying process. We always warn families the process is unpredictable in terms of time frame. He may live minutes or days, something I wouldn’t really know until he was off machines.

It was a very peaceful process. The family was all in the room. We removed the breathing tube. Took off all the other tubes and wires, beeps and buzzes, and let them just be with him.  It was evident he’d been very sick, because he really made no effort to breath on his own. I prepared the family it would be more in the minutes range and left them to be with him.

Sometimes the monitors out in the nurses station still record the electrical telemetry from the heat. I’m not as used to this, as usually everything is turned off, but in this case I could look at a little computer monitor to see his heart still beating.

Here’s the confession. With my husband out of town this month, I’m the one to pick up our daughter from daycare. I’d already stayed in the hospital longer than I usually do, and was keenly aware as I watched the blip of this mans heart, that each blip was time getting later and later. As it began to get slower and slower, I found myself mentally coaxing the heart to stop. “C’mon, let that be the last beat. I’ve got to go!”

I know, how callous! When I realized what I was doing I was immediately disappointed in myself. This bleep on the screen signified a person’s life…by hoping it would stop soon, I was essentially wishing this man dead.  Not for some noble reason, like to end his suffering, but so that I could pick up my daughter on time from day care.

That’s my confession. And my apology to this man’s soul, who’s heart did stop. And to his family, who wept at his bedside and hugged me in gratitude for helping him die peacefully, not realizing my hidden selfishness.

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