Death takes another Holiday

My December column in Emergency Medicine News


One Christmas morning you wake to head off for your standard Christmas shift. Then the news flashes. “This just in: There is no more sickness or death. Hospital workers are directed to remain home today and enjoy the holiday.”

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Attribute it to whatever you want. Sudden scientific breakthrough, alien visitation, divine miracle.

You call the ED. “Is everything all right down there?”

You hear celebration in the background, music playing loudly. “It’s crazy,” says the secretary. “Something happened. We have no idea what, but the waiting room is empty. Before midnight we were 30 patients deep. Back pain, chest pain, fever, flu. Remember the woman you left? The one dying of melanoma? Around 2 a.m. there was a flash, and the computers rebooted. We figured she only had hours. We walked into her room, and she was asking for hot apple cider. She got dressed, left, and brought us donuts. Can you believe it?”

You head to work, puzzled. Your neighbor with lung disease is rolling up a snowman with his grandkids, who were in town to see him for what they believed was a last visit. Speeding past a nursing home, you see cars lined up to gather the belongings of the formerly infirm. They are carrying their own bags and crying into the embracing arms of children they had not viewed with clarity for a decade.

Shaking your head, you pull into the parking lot. All of the ambulances sit quietly in spaces. “Busy morning?” you ask the shift manager. “Haven’t gone out since 2 a.m. Strangest night ever. First Christmas Eve without a tragedy.” He tears up and pats your shoulder.

The doors hiss open as you swipe your badge. Inside the rooms are full, as you suspected. But full of revelry. Nowhere in the vast trauma center does anyone gasp, nowhere is a ventilator sustaining the head injured. A man with a head bandaged like a war hero chats with his family in the conference room. All you hear is, “They said they would harvest your organs.” He pulls away the last of the bloody bandages where no blood now flows.

Into the chaos comes the on-call administrator. She is frantic. “This is ridiculous! Someone needs to get these people back into their beds! We are violating privacy and contaminating everyone!”

She hears a voice and looks behind her as her bedridden husband, afflicted with MS for his entire adult life, walks in looking for her. She runs to him. And wonder of wonders, he lifts her.

You are incredulous. And you walk. Up the stairs, down halls, into operating rooms. Nowhere is there any order, as the end of suffering brings joy. Laughter is everywhere, along with weeping powered not by grief but by relief. Sick children skip, ancient patients walk. Curved backs are straight. Nurses and doctors wonder, “What now?”

There are emergency meetings. Angry fists pounded over lost income. Confusion over bonds and debts and staffing. Decisions on how long to remain open. A while, for sure. This might be a fluke.

The hallways are empty except for those awaiting family from far away. No morphine is given. No fluids, no labs. Every pizza place in town has sent food. You realize, from historical photos, that it’s like the liberation of POW camps. The march of men and women who were on the steps of the gallows, now picking flowers and hitching a ride home to people they believed, only hours before, they would never see again.

At the end of a dark and empty hallway, where you pronounced patients dead, you collapse onto your knees in relief and cry a little yourself. You pull into the driveway, and your wife, her eyes misty, kisses you and holds you close, then sits you down to a sumptuous dinner.

You have no idea how you will pay the bills, how you will support the family, what you will do with the knowledge, the skill, the experience. “If everyone is OK, are you still a doctor?” the little one asks.

“I don’t know, my little dove,” you say. “But the thing is, I just don’t care!”

And the best Christmas, since the first, has come at last.

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