As an ICU nurse, I often experience the last moments of a person’s life. There is a fragile balance that my patients are often teetering between, that is, life and death. As nurses, we often see the end of someone’s life coming before they or their family does. We prepare, we anticipate, we intervene to the best of our abilities. We see the trends, and we attempt to prepare ourselves and the families for what is imminent. Yet sometimes, the time between life and death seems as if Jesus very obviously intervenes and calls that person to Him so quickly. It is not often that I am taken as off guard as I was last night. In one moment, my patient is apologizing for “keeping me up all night,” and the next moment, they are gone. It has literally wrecked for the last 21 hours. To look up at the monitor and see your patient's heart rate in the 50s when it had been over 100 since 1900… I just knew. I literally ran to the room… and all I could do was hold a hand and cry.
There is something about that moment. I have experienced it more since 2020 than I have in my 12 years of being an ICU nurse. It is an honor to hold a person's hand as they transition into heaven, and it is often a relief if I am honest that someone's futile suffering is over… but this was different. There had been improvement all day; I honestly wasn’t concerned or anticipated this happening during my shift. It was just so quick.
Having to make the phone call in the middle of the night to wake up family and tell them they needed to come when neither of us anticipated it was terrible. Knowing that they wouldn’t get there in time- I pulled up a chair, and time stood still, if even for a moment. As the heart rate and breathing continued to decrease, I stood in that difficult (for us) space with my patient, very obviously between this world and heaven. Their heart slowly beating, their chest slowly rising, but no other signs of life. I did as I would have done with my own family…. I held my patient’s hand, rubbed their arm, brushed their hair to the side, and let them know that they were so loved, so valued and that their life meant something. I had seen that so clearly for the two days they were my patient.
And in just moments, their heart no longer beat here on this earth… shock, guilt for being the one there but also just so honored to be the one. Life is so fragile, so temporary. This feeling felt so familiar… as we experienced for ourselves in 2017. If we are lucky, we will all be gifted with a long life like my patient, with family who was exponentially more devastated than I was at that moment. If we are lucky, we will have family gather around our earthly body and share stories, tears, and laughter just moments after reaching heaven: such sadness, but so much thankfulness… grief, and joy all simultaneously.
It's heavy… a heavy feeling to be the one taking care of a patient when Jesus decides to call them home. Guilt that it couldn’t be prevented, guilt that the family wasn’t there to be the one ushering them to Jesus. I had heard my patient talking to Jesus just an hour or so before, asking Him to take them home when He was ready. This is the first time I have so clearly seen the Lord so graciously answer the prayers of someone right in front of me. He hears, He knows, He cares…
This was the most peaceful death I have experienced in a long time. My patient wasn’t struggling, and we weren’t fighting to keep them here. The decision to be a DNR (do not resuscitate) can be an absolutely beautiful gift in the moments when Jesus decides it is your time. There were no ribs being broken, no breathing tube being inserted, no hard decisions for the family… the decision was made by the patient long before they knew the time that Jesus would answer their prayers. It was beautiful. It was peaceful.
I’m not sure why the Lord feels I am equipped to be this person for families, but I am grateful. Grateful for my calling, for the skills he has given me, and for his peace and hope that transcends this earth. I may have cried myself to sleep today and on the way back home to my family, but ultimately, my heart is just so broken for that family and for the hard days ahead they might experience. Hold your people close, put your hope in the only one who can truly give it, and have a relationship with Jesus. That is all that matters in those moments as your heart ceases to beat here on earth.