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Thursday, December 14, 2017

When Someone Says, "Am I Going To Die!"

“Am I going to die?”

It’s a question I’ve heard many times over my 20 years as a respiratory therapist.

Yeah! Like, how do I answer that?

Here I was, fresh out of RT school, and I was posed with this question my very first day on the job.

I said nothing.

I just stood there at the edge of the bed feeling guilty that I did not know. I wanted so bad to give an answer. I wanted so bad just to get out of the room. I felt so guilty.

I was posed with the same question a few weeks later. She was 62-years old. She was recently retired. She was looking forward to enjoying her retirement. She had worked so hard to enjoy this benefit of life. She was recently diagnosed with end-stage COPD. She was also diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. It was a big double-whammy!

We had become friends, of sorts. We spent lots of time together due to her disease. I was with her in the emergency room. I was there when she was first put on a BiPAP machine. I gave her numerous Duoneb treatments before she was admitted to the floors.

I made sure she had a bedside table to lean on. I gave her a pillow to rest her elbows on. I saw that she had sweat beads on her head as she worked hard to suck in air. I found her a fan to help cool her off. It produced a smile on her face.

And then, every 2-3 hours, I was there to give her more Duonebs.

Once she caught her breath we talked. She had a bible on her bedside table. I asked her what her favorite passage was. I said, “If you were to meet someone right now who said he didn’t believe in God, what passage would you recommend.” She said, “John, Chapter 1, Verses 1-4.”

We talked about that for a long, long time. Our conversation segued to her children. It segued to politics. We talked about all sorts of things. Often, I found myself sitting in a chair next to her bed long after my task was complete.

Then she got worse. I was ordered to place her back on BiPAP. It got so bad that she didn’t want to go off the BiPAP. I’d ask, “Does this make your breathing easier?” She’d say, “Yes!” Or, since it’s hard to talk with a mask over your face, she’d just nod.

One morning, early in my shift, I took the Bipap mask off her face. I placed her on a nasal cannula. I did this so she could eat. She struggled mightily to breathe off the BiPAP. She looked up at me with her big blue eyes and humbly asked, “Is this what it’s like to die?”

What do I say to that?

I said nothing.

I stood there silent. I felt so horrible as she asked it again.

She must have thought I would have a good answer. I was her friend, after all. I should be honest with her. But I did not know the answer. I did not know. I felt guilty for not having an answer for her. So guilty!

In fact, I felt so awkward by the question that I just wanted to leave her room. Okay? Like, yeah! It was not a good moment for the 27-year-old version of me.

She did not die that night. I do not know whatever happened to her. But, the questions she posed to me still linger in the back of my mind. I still do not have a good answer. I do not have an answer even though I am now a seasoned RT with 20 years experience.

And it happened yet again! It was a few weeks ago. She posed the dreaded question:

“Am I going to die?”

She said, "“Is this what it’s like to die.”

She said this as she struggled to breathe at the bedside. She was leaning on the table. Her elbows were cushioned on a pillow I had given her. Her breathing seemed aided somewhat by the Duoneb breathing treatment misting over her face under the mask. She even managed a smile as she waited for my answer.

I said nothing.

The only difference between then and now is that I had 20 years experience in the middle. I had seen this numerous times. And here I was still not knowing what to say.

But, this time I did not feel guilty not having an answer. I read somewhere that, in such situations, silence is okay. Silence shows that you care.

I talked to a nurse about this once. She told me her answer: "I do not know! Only God knows." 

And this is true.

And this is true. But still, I personally find that silence is the best answer. That's how I answer the dreaded question.

Here's the truth we all know. You do not know when someone is going to die. It is true that only God knows. I have seen some people die hours after these moments. I have seen others recover and live another 10 years or so, maybe longer.

So, there is no correct answer, as far as I know. If you can think of something to say, I think that's okay. But, if you can't, just being there is all the answer that is needed. Silence is okay!

So, what do you say when someone says, “Am I going to die.” I read somewhere that it's okay not to have an answer. In fact, some experts say that the best answer is simple silence. It shows compassion. It shows you care.

What are your thoughts? What do you say when someone says, "Am I going to die? Is this what it's like?"

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