As I drove to the hospital, I knew I would need to use my 45-minute commute as time to decompress from my personal morning stresses. My day is always unpredictable, but this time I knew that a Jewish family was waiting for me; specifically, they had requested prayers to be said for their dying loved one. Abe’s life was being maintained by a mere machine. This was the only information I knew. I needed to come into work with a focused and clear mind.
Upon my arrival to the hospital, I quickly put down my belongings and left to see Abe and his family. Before each patient, I silently pray to God to help me be the right messenger needed for the family at this time. As I entered the ICU and found where Abe was, I found a gentleman with many tubes covering his body. It was difficult to recognize a face. No family appeared to be present. I located Abe’s doctor and nurse who mentioned that the family had just stepped out into the waiting room. Once the extubation process would begin, they anticipated Abe’s particular passing to be quick. I stepped into the busy waiting room to find a wife, daughter and son who felt a sense of relief at my mere presence. The family said that they did not want to wait any longer for the extended family to arrive; they wanted to begin prayers.
We re-entered the busy ICU all together and approached Abe. I brought extra chairs for the family and laid out a box of tissues on the table. I turned to the family and mentioned that unfortunately I never had the opportunity to know Abe. What kind of person is he? And with that, each family member present had the opportunity to speak and reflect on specific memories and qualities of Abe they would always remember. Through tears, the daughter in particular said how Abe was always such a positive person; always seeing the glass half full. This was a quality that she would always remember and pass on to her own children.
Being that the family was Jewish, but appeared to be very disconnected from their Judaism, I explained to them the special Hebrew prayer called “Vidui.” I described its significance and asked if they would like to take part in reciting parts of the prayer in English. They declined. Though religion never played a central role in this family’s life, they all knew that Abe would have wanted these special prayers. I mentioned how I would recite it in Hebrew and then explain parts in English.
I stood by the bedside of Abe with his family all holding each other and standing behind me. It is indeed a holy time; a time when the soul will be leaving and returning to God. These would be the last prayers, accompanying Abe to the next world. I see it as an honor to have this role. Because it is said that the sense of hearing is the last to leave, I introduced myself to Abe and spoke to him for a several minutes before the recitation of the Vidui prayer.
Upon completion, I turned around to find the daughter and her mother in tears. They approached to hug me and thanked me profusely for the beautiful prayers which they knew Abe would have appreciated and they all felt comforted knowing he received. As always, but especially in this particular moment, I needed to carefully weigh any of my words, watch my tone and monitor my body language. This family was about to lose their loved one and these final moments would be re-played, re-told and etched in their memory forever.
The son then asked me what would happen next and how long “it” would take. I explained how once the machines are removed, Abe is in God’s hands. His passing could be minutes, hours or days and we can not be certain. However, from my understanding the doctor seemed to feel that his passing would be very fast. And then, the head nods by all; the non-verbal gesturing. Nothing else to say…
A scene like this is often depicted in the movies and on TV, with dramatic music playing in the background. This was not a TV episode, movie or a chapter in a novel. This was real life.
I left the area, found the doctor and nurse and informed them that the family was ready.
I returned with the nurse and told the family that I would remain in the vicinity. I closed the curtains and let the family be alone with Abe.
As I approached the nurses’ station, I found Doctor C, who had operated on Abe. He gave me some of the background on Abe, since I did not know anything. Apparently, Abe, a relatively healthy 78-year-old man, had a rare, unforeseen complication during a heart surgery. Though he had been trying to be hopeful for two days, Dr. C knew that there was absolutely nothing medically left to do. He was down and felt defeated. I was struck by the compassion that Dr. C had. I could see that he truly felt the pain of the family.
Within 10 short minutes, Abe passed away. It was fast, as predicted. Dr. C and I looked at each other with teary eyes. Our hearts were full of pain and sadness.
I escorted the grief-stricken family out to the small family room where they would have their privacy. I served as the “go between” between the nurse and the family as some questions arose. I needed to continue to be focused. Nothing else mattered right now except for being fully present with the family of Abe. Life was going on for everyone around us, but for this family, life had temporarily stopped. Personally, I knew that I would feel my emotional drainage only later.
The family thanked me for my presence, compassion and of course the meaningful prayers.
Using my judgment as to when would be appropriate to leave the family, I exited the area after leaving my number and my department phone number for all.
I went outside the hospital to sit in the cool air and bright sunshine in order to collect my thoughts. I texted my feelings to a trusted colleague. As I checked my phone, I noticed that I missed two phone calls, 30 WhatsApps, 6 texts and 15 emails. It could wait. It could all wait.
I glanced at my patient list of the day; two on the palliative/hospice unit, five on the oncology floor, three in surgical ICU, two in the ER and many other patients scattered all through the hospital. This did not bode well for the day; I felt emotionally and physically depleted and it was only 10:45 a.m.—the day had just begun! I wondered how I would make it through the rest of the day. I knew that it was crucial to take a few minutes to process the very spiritual, intimate moments I encountered while being with Abe and his family.
Sitting outside the hospital, watching life go by, I realized that although it is painfully draining to begin my day in this way, there can be something very invigorating and motivating about it.
“To tell each morning your kindness, and your trust in the evening…” (Psalms 92:2-3). It became a clear-cut reminder to thank God for the gift of life. God had given me another day of renewed opportunity; it now becomes my obligation to make the most of every minute of this new day. With that thought in mind, a sudden surge of energy burst through my body. I re-entered the hospital, bought myself an extra strong coffee and the only phrase that echoed in my mind was “The day is short and the work is great” (Ethics of our Fathers [Pirkei Avos] 2:20). And there is no time like the present.
By Debby Pfeiffer
Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center through its affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ. She resides in Bergenfield with her husband and five children. She can be reached at [email protected]