Until it happens to you

Six years ago today, we sat in a waiting room. We sat, impatiently waiting, for our name to be called. We chatted about random things, trying not to address the situation we were about to face. I wrote a “to do” list on a magazine mailer I found on the coffee table in front of us.


We stood up. We walked, in silence, to a small room. There was no window. It smelled like rubbery plastic, like bandaids. The nurse took vitals. She chatted about the weather, answered a few of my questions. One included, “We have called a few times about symptoms…the PA is usually good about calling back within 2-3 days…why is he ignoring us?” I said it in half-jest. I was annoyed he hadn’t returned our calls – or had someone return our calls. She fought back tears as she informed us that he had passed away quite soon after his own cancer diagnosis.
She told us a brief story about how his widow recently decided to remove his coat from their closet and decided to check the pocket. She found a ring he had custom-made for their anniversary. They didn’t get the opportunity to celebrate and he never had the chance to properly present it to her. I literally gasped at the thought; how terribly sad and tragic.

She left us, as we waited for our own sobering reality.
Chad and I sat in stunned silence. I stared at a stack of out-of-date magazines, internally kicking myself for being insensitive.

The doctor entered.
There was no warm smile and general conversation, like every time before.
He was brief and factual. He offered a few options, none of which Chad wanted to discuss at length.  He already knew he  wanted to forgo treatment, without hesitation. Dr. T offered his condolences, thanked us for trusting him and told us to take our time in the room.

We cried as we sat in the room for a while longer.
I asked my husband a few questions, assured him that he was allowed to take his time and consider all available options. His mind was fixed; he was miserable and didn’t consider “more time” any consolation for the misery he felt on a daily basis. That has been so hard for me to accept. I can never understand that pain because I was always on the outside looking in. It didn’t happen to me.

When we decided it was finally time to leave the room, we weren’t sure what to do. I remember opening the door and peeking outside, like we were in trouble or needed permission.

From that moment on, every single thing looked different.
The faces of the staff looked different as they looked at us with such pity and sadness.
My husband looked different, defeated and tired. But also relieved, in a strange way.
The sky even looked different as we took the glass elevator down to the parking garage.
The drive home was different, as I tried to imagine my home without him in it.

At the time, I did not have time to process the manner in which that news was delivered.
Over the years, I have had time to think about it.
To analyze it.
It made me angry for a while.
It always makes me cry when I think about it.

And the conclusion?
There was no other way for Dr. T to tell us that Chad was going to die within 3 to 6 months.
There just wasn’t another way.
How do you present death, dying, hospice, and “getting your affairs in order” in a neat little package to a 32-year-old man who has a beautiful, young, vibrant family?

Imagine the job Dr. T had (and still has): to care for very sick people and hopefully make them better – even if temporarily. Sometimes he gets to tell people they are healed. And sometimes, like in our case, he  gets to tell people their time is extremely limited.

Can you imagine?
Can you imagine the toll it takes on a professional who has to deliver such news on a daily basis? The heaviness that must weigh on him when families try to bargain with him to save their loved one?
I can’t.
I just can’t fathom it.

I am thankful for that doctor.
He made a huge difference in our lives.
I even wrote him a note of thanks after Chad passed away. Sounds strange – but I told him how grateful I was that he took on our case, when no other surgeons wanted to. He gave us a chance and I will forever be grateful for that opportunity.

I’ve been volunteering with hospice in the last few months.
It has brought back so many memories and has reaffirmed goals I’ve set for myself.

I have been pursuing a career in the healthcare industry for five years.
While I never want to be responsible for telling a family that death is imminent, I want to be able to properly support people who are faced with such tragic news. I want to cry with them. I want them to feel supported. I want them to know they matter.

Nursing school has been the most challenging and rewarding experience.
Sometimes I want to quit, if I’m being honest.
Then I remember that I have something rewarding to offer to people.
I have personal life experience with death, sadly.

Supporting people at their darkest moments is something you can’t prepare for.
There are no books to direct your words or actions.
There are no words that adequately capture the pain, fear and loneliness that death brings about.

There is no way to properly learn empathy
until it happens to you.

I’m reminded daily of the things I miss about my husband and the brief life we shared.
All of those beautiful everyday moments happened to me before all the tragic ones did.

I’m thankful for the good and the bad; for both, equally but in different ways.

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One Response to Until it happens to you

  1. Terri Ortiz says:

    Still following your story as it continues. Time goes by so fast. Your mom has been gone from Cumberland County for a while now, but I still think of both of you. So glad you continue to write. I hope you have many more happy days ahead of you!

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