Colleen Figg

When death comes knocking

2008-08-29 08:48

Colleen Figg

In December last year I was left with the task, one night, of calling for an ambulance to take my aunt to hospital. She'd been sick for some time with severe emphysema but had shown such improvement that her daughter took a break and went camping out Walkerville way. Her brother was at home and he came with us.

My aunt was certainly not looking well but was quite lively nonetheless, joking and talking to the paramedics on the way to the hospital. Once we arrived she was taken in to the emergency ward and assessed.

We kept popping back in to talk to her and see how she was and although she was quite grey in the face and her extremities were quite cold she still seemed fairly alright. My chief feeling was relief to have got her to the hospital and to have her in the hands of the doctors.

The doctor in the emergency ward seemed to be taking a hell of a long time to get my aunt moving into ICU and twice I asked her about that as my aunt kept asking me when she would be moved to the ward so she could start getting antibiotics.

The doctor did not really give any kind of answer but I left her to it as I assumed she knew what she was doing. (She knew alright as later became glaringly obvious to me!).

Finally at around 21:45 she was moved to the ward - but only the general ward - and another battery of nurses came in to take down details, administer oxygen and so on. There was a lot of activity around my aunt but at no time did anyone imply or hint that she was in a very serious condition indeed.

During all this her daughter kept phoning to ask whether she should come through and I kept telling her no, I thought all was under control and she might as well come through in the morning.

How could we know?

I decided to leave the staff to it and we left around 22:10. As we walked out a nurse asked me how my aunt got so sick so suddenly but she also never hinted that all was not fine.

Once I got home I ate some supper and phoned through at around 22:35, to be told my aunt had died. I spoke to the same nurse again and she said to me she was "surprised we had left".

In the days and months following that night I have asked myself time and again why I could not see that my aunt was at death's door. It occurred to me that I should have realised that when they moved her to the general ward instead of ICU it meant that they knew they could do nothing for her.

I should have seen that the reason for the emergency room doctor dragging her heels like she did was most likely the same. I berated myself over and over for telling my cousin she should come through in the morning, that all was under control.

On the heels of this painful introspection and sense of terrible helplessness I slowly became angry that not one medical staff member had seen fit to point out what to them must have been glaringly obvious.

I wondered how we - laymen who had never experienced death - should have been able to see we "should have stayed". It all seemed so final, and so terribly mundane, that we should have just been allowed to stroll out of a hospital instead of someone stopping us and telling us in no uncertain terms what we were really looking at.

There are no answers, of course, but if there should be a next time I will make darn sure I insist on every detail instead of waiting on the medical staff to show the compassion and care they should be known for.

Send your comments to Colleen.

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