Take My Hand

Getty Images. Selina Joiner.

I have this problem.

Last semester I finished my pediatric rotation in nursing school. I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in the pediatric ICU. The first week I cared for an eleven year old boy. From his chart I found out that before being admitted, he was suffering from dizziness and headaches. One day, he collapsed onto the ground during soccer practice. He was rushed to the ER. There was a tumor in his brain and so the doctors operated to remove it. Big success. The kid was on his way to recovery.

About a day after the surgery, he suddenly went into respiratory arrest. He had to be intubated. He became unresponsive to any stimuli. Unable to move. Unable to speak. Unable to breathe on his own. Unable to blink at will. As it turned out, he had cerebral edema so they inserted a shunt in his head to remove the excess fluid. And this was all done two weeks before I saw him. There had been no change in that entire time.

I half listened to the nurse as she talked about CPAPs and flow rates, the intravenous meds infusing through his veins, the shunt in his brain, the wound vacs… and all I could see was a broken child with so many tubes snaking in and out of his body at multiple points. I helped the nurse as she gently repositioned him to avoid pressure ulcers. As she continued talking and fiddling with the machines, I stood silently to his other side. His head was repositioned so that he was looking at me. And it almost looked like he was staring at my face, but there was no way to know if he was able to process what he was seeing. A lump formed in my throat. I did the only thing I could think of… I reached over and held his hand.

In that moment, all I wanted him to know was that he wasn’t alone. That he could feel my touch and know that someone was there. That there were people who still cared. Hell, if he was still in the “I-hate-girls” stage, I wanted him to feel that embarrassment of holding a girl’s hand, too. I wanted him to feel like a normal eleven year old boy, if only for just a few minutes. The nurse finished talking, turned around to see me holding his hand and smiled softly. She told me to find her outside when I was ready and left the room. I stayed a little while longer and told him my name, that I liked the stuffed teddy bear the nurse had placed under his arm, my favorite Spongebob episode from ten years ago, since that’s what was on TV at the moment.

As I said, I kind of have a problem. I get too emotionally involved. No matter who it is, a stranger or a friend, someone who ignores me or has hurt me… if they are suffering in any way, the neurons in my brain that control empathy go into overdrive, short-circuit, and stay stuck on ‘Max’. I suffer from a case of the feels, big time. I asked my nurse how I could provide compassionate care while still remaining somewhat emotionally detached. She smiled and said I was asking the wrong person. She had worked in both adult ICU and PICU for a total of 6 years and still couldn’t fully compartmentalize her feelings and emotions.

A week later, I was on the same PICU floor but was assigned to a different patient. As I passed his room, I couldn’t keep myself from peeking into the glass door. A doctor was with him and his family. Later, I looked up his chart. He could now blink on command… but also had an endotracheal intubation. One step forward but two steps back.

This was almost three months ago. I still think about him every now and then.

The Reluctant Agnostic

“I don’t mean to offend you, I know you and your family practice a different religion than myself. If there’s anything that I say or do that contradicts your beliefs, please let me know.”

“It’s alright. Our beliefs are more similar than you think.”

She smiled. “Now, are you and your family practicing Muslims?”

I looked at my grandmother, buried up to her chin in blankets, sound asleep in her hospice-issued bed. “She is.” I turned back to the kindly chaplain. “Myself, not so much. Just in name, I guess.”

She nodded. “I know you have priests or leaders of some sort that take care of spiritual needs of the patient and their family. I usually come by once a month, more or less if needed. But if you wish, I could stop coming over, if those needs are being met by her own faith. It’s completely up to you and your family.”

My grandmother speaks Hindi, Kutchi and Gujarati fluently. Her English is pretty limited in spoken conversation. I couldn’t imagine my grandmother needing the services of this chaplain due to the language barrier alone. And besides, she really was receiving support from people of her own faith anyway.

“Actually,” I began. “Would you mind coming over once a month anyway? Not for her but… for me?”

She reached over and held my hand. “Of course, my dear.”

I’ve been through the hospice process once before this year so I knew the drill. Don’t get me wrong. I have so much respect and admiration for these people. I feel it takes an incredibly strong person to be a hospice nurse. The very word ‘nurse’ means to nurture, to heal, to returna0002-000360 to a level of health prior to current illness. But a hospice nurse does his or her job with the knowledge that the patient they are there to take care of will not heal, will not get better. They will only progressively get worse until the very last breath escapes their lips.

But the continuous calls and almost daily visits from the nurses, the chaplain, the social worker, are just constant reminders for me that the Grim Reaper, or the Angel of Death if you prefer, might make another visit to my home again. Someone I’m not ready to see yet, at least not so soon.

I’m not sure why I asked her to come visit anyway, for myself no less. In an earlier post, I said I’m agnostic. For the most part, the existence of a higher being no longer matters to me when it comes to making every day decisions. I believe if the fear of hellfire is the only thing stopping you from hurting another in any way, then maybe, because of this greed alone, you probably belong there. You don’t need religion. You need a lesson in empathy and humanity.

I read an article in one of those magazines that people pass out at airports or, in my case, outside the gas station. There was a lady in one of the articles who volunteered to take care of  a terminally ill patient who suffered from frequent seizures. This patient happened to be an atheist who didn’t want to be prayed over and wanted to remove the crucifix that was hanging in his room on the wall across from him. During a seizure, the lady, after some hesitation, turned him over onto his side and supported his head. She wrote that she had initially wanted him to choke on his own tongue during the seizure because he didn’t believe in Christ and thought of doing nothing for a moment but decided to help him because that’s what the Lord would have wanted her to do.

The right and humane thing to have done, lady, is to help him regardless of his beliefs or yours. It scares me that these people, as fully functioning adults, need a set of rules to still tell them what’s right and what’s wrong, in a situation as clearly black and white as this.

I won’t pretend to be a morally superior individual. I’m not. But I don’t base my morals on the promise of a better Afterlife. I don’t believe that belonging to a particular religion, like an exclusive club, automatically saves me a spot in heaven. I don’t believe God really cares if I eat or drink something which one religion claims to be okay and the other forbids, I’m sure he has better things to do than keep track of that. I try to live by the old stand-by: “Treat others as you wish to be treated yourself.”

Yet at the same time, I can’t deny this need within me to nurture spiritual growth. I’m not ready to let go of the idea of God completely. And maybe I never will. But the thing is, I can’t feel his (or her, or should we even assign God a gender?) presence anymore in the place of worship I’m accustomed to, where I see people trying to display their wealth in clothes and jewelry, where gossip is so prevalent, where I feel more suffocated now than at peace. I no longer feel God in the words I’ve memorized in prayer. I no longer feel him in the set of rites and rituals performed. I no longer find him in religious texts and scriptures where he is a vengeful being, where men are put on a higher pedestal over women, and where I see more words of hate than words of love and tolerance.

But I do feel him when I’m taking a walk in the park, when I hear the wind rustle through the leaves and the branches of trees that have probably witnessed a thousand people just like me, searching for inner peace. I do hear him in the sound of the birds chirping early in the morning. I’ve felt him while gazing upon the vastness of the Pacific a couple years ago. I’ve felt him every time I leave work close to midnight and the quiet engulfs me as I look at the stars. I feel him when I listen to beautiful music. And I felt him the strongest as I held my aunt in my arms when she made her journey from this life to the next, wherever that is.

I feel the presence of God in nature and in the kindness of people. But I no longer feel his presence in any organized religion. So maybe agnostic isn’t the right word. Because while I don’t believe God grants wishes like a genie, or interferes with the lives of us mere mortals, I’m not ready to give up the idea of God completely. Maybe I’m more of a Deist. But again, I don’t want to put a label on what I am.

The chaplain gave me a hug that lasted for a long time before leaving, probably sensing that I really needed it. She didn’t preach. She didn’t ask too many questions about what I believe in. But what she did do was give me words of comfort. She shared with me stories of people who had passed on, what they had seen in the days and hours before death. One elderly lady had seen two adolescent twin girls who had died in infancy, who happened to be her granddaughters, before passing away the next day. My own grandmother confessed that she had seen her own mother, who had passed away 30 years ago, sitting beside her bed while she was in the ICU. And the thought gives me comfort, knowing when her time comes, she’ll be greeted by loved ones who have passed on already.

Are these experiences real? Or just hallucinations brought on by chemical imbalances caused by pathological processes happening in the body? I don’t know. I choose to believe it’s real. Do I have proof? No. But that’s faith for you. If there is a spiritual world, I believe the gate separating both worlds opens when the hour of death is near. Because it was in that moment that I felt most connected with my own spiritual self.