Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hearts That Stop

I had just helped hold her head down during her spinal tap and listened to her raspy lungs. She was sick, very sick. Not long after we finished rounds, a family member appears at the door and waves us in. Before I comprehend what is happening they have taken out her I.V. Her lovely face is peaceful as if in a restful sleep, cradled in her mother’s arms. The raspy breaths have stopped. Squatting down in front of her I put my stethoscope to her chest. I had to know for sure for myself. I heard a flutter and then nothing. She had just slipped away, and what was left was a beautiful shell of a little girl. I took note of her bright blue bead necklace and slightly orange tinted curly hair. She was chubby and looked healthy, but life had escaped her too soon. A terrible disease had destroyed her red blood cells, starved her body of oxygen, taxed her heart, and filled her lungs. They wrap her in a pretty African cloth and silently walk away. I stand watching them leave, at a loss for words.

The child had been struggling along all day, but now the family calls us over. He has taken a turn for the worst. No longer conscious, his head is lulled backwards as he gasps for every breath. The mother has silent tears rolling down her strong face. I can sense her fear and anticipatory grief. I know what that is like. They have given him every possible medicine and started a transfusion. They have wrapped his hot body in a wet cloth and now I fan him in hopes of providing some comfort. I pray silently for God to bring comfort and healing. There is nothing more I can do. My shift ends, and few hours later so does his life.

I see the parents carry her, swaddled in a cloth, out of the hot Pediatrics building to the shade of a nearby tree. She is yet another case of lungs filling with fluid. A few minutes later they call us over. Once again there is an eerie silence, in place of the gurgling of her struggling breaths. I place my hand on the mother’s shoulder in wordless sympathy. Reaching down I stroke child’s head and marvel at how soft it is under my hand. Gently I pull the IV from her still warm hand. I straighten up and stand starring. Realizing there is nothing more I can do I begin stepping backwards, cast one more sympathetic look to the family, and walk away. "Rochelle, come here and start this baby's IV" my fellow nurse calls. I toss the dead baby’s IV in the trash and simultaneously reach for the new one. The new baby’s struggling breaths, sound just like the little one who just died. When will this cycle end?

A mother comes to us holding a gasping baby. We drop everything and all work together until an IV is started and a bag of blood hung. We sit there and watch the baby. I watch each breath and wonder if he'll have strength for another one. It makes me feel short of breath. My shift is about to end. What more can I do? I noticed a crucifix around the mother’s neck. In broken Nangere, I attempt to explain I want to pray for her. She nods her head gratefully. I place my hand on the baby's head and pray in English, scattered with French phrases. I pray for healing, comfort and strength. I pat the mother’s arm and give her a look that hopeful translates as " I'm so sorry. I wish things were different." Afterwards I hear the baby died 4 hours later.

I wake up to hear a baby's father calling me to come. It’s 4:30 in the morning. I had admitted this baby the evening before with a Hemoglobin of 2.3. He needed a transfusion. We tried for 2 hours to get an IV in the baby. I pray the whole time pleading for God to help us. Finally we get one in his neck. I breath a sigh of relief. I take care of all the other patients, assess everyone who seems a little unstable and then lay down for a rest. Now I walk quickly to the bedside and find the baby breathing with effort. The family wants me to pull the IV. I don't want to. There is no way this baby is going to survive without the blood, but they are insistent. Frustrated, I grab gloves, bend down and begin pulling at the tape. Just as I pull it out, there is one more gurgle, then nothing. I stop breathing too. I look at the other nurse who has come to talk to the family. "Is the baby dead?" He gives a quick nod. Shocked, I glance back at the baby in front of me. No! It can't be! I grab the nurse’s stethoscope from around his neck and press it to the baby’s chest. There is a slow, dying heartbeat. I push at the baby's chest, willing it to breath. I have wild thoughts of trying resuscitation, but the other nurse just stands there. I realize there is nothing to be done. I have just watched a baby drown before my eyes . . . just like all the other ones. What more could I have done? Surely something. I should have been watching. I should have caught it earlier. God forgive me if I could have done even one more thing to save this baby.

Each time I see a heart stop, something happens to mine. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I know I did everything I could. Sometimes I question. I don't have time to stop and process all my thoughts right then, there are other children to take care of. I press forward and keep working, but later the thoughts come. When I look at the stars at night or see a happy healthy child, I think of these hearts that stopped.

I can hardly wait for the day when death itself will die. That Day is coming soon.


Emily said...

Heather. My heart hurts for yours- I only have a shadow of that pain in the comforts of my American hospital. I pray for you. And will pray more. lovemily

Luke said...

Heather. I lived through those same moments many times. There were a few priceless miracle stories and alot of suffering. One would like to prentend that suffering ceased when your shift ended/when your year at Bere was over. But it goes on... for now at least.