We thought the old man wouldn’t make it. Not after putting him in a coma for three weeks. Three weeks, he lay flat on his stomach, three pillows underneath to force an incline and a wheezing ventilator pushing air into the ringed tube we threaded into his lungs.
He needed a shave but who had the time? I was between four sometimes five patients at once. Between the coughing and the endless bags of saline, and me holding my pee sometimes for eight hours straight, I didn’t know if to scream or weep. I’m ashamed to say it but sometimes I did both.
Most days it was too much. And then there were days that just broke us. When two, maybe three patients would code. Their hearts would flutter, then their lungs would collapse without warning. And sometimes there was nothing to do but hold their hands and watch as their eyes opened wide with fright. With horror. With knowing that we’d failed them. And there was nothing, we could do except hold them as close as we dared. Horrified that our broken hearts and eyes would be the last things they would see on this side of the light.
It kills me to watch them go. I will never get past this. Every soul a blessing, every empty body leaving behind a burden for us to bear on our tired shoulders. And there are days I can’t bring myself to get out of bed. On those days, I say my prayers. I ask God to forgive me. To forgive all of us for being too weak. Too tired. Too empty from the endless night that fills our days. Oh God, let your will be done but let my heart be strong God. Oh God. Oh God. On those days, it’s God alone that gets me out of bed.
Today though, the doctors insisted my coma patient’s vitals were stable. We could take him off the ventilator. I waited for them to pull the breathing tube. It was so long. So impossibly long; it rasped against his teeth as they pulled. Then it was gone, coiled into a steel basin at the side of the bed.
I tidied his face and took his vitals. He was such a nice man. Wavy gray hair. His cheeks were peppered with salt and pepper hair. I remembered when they wheeled him in. He was fighting to breathe but he smiled as I prepped him. Told me I reminded him of his second wife. His one and only wife called us every day to check on him. I always took the call.
His blood pressure was good. Respiratory rate — wonder of wonders 15 breaths per minute and holding steady. I wrapped my fingers around his wrist to take his pulse. And I held his hand just like I did every day for the past three weeks. Sweet Jesus, it was so warm, so full of life, my eyes overflowed. He looked at me, his eyes wet and red and tired and alert.
“Are you an angel?” he said.
I couldn’t speak. No I whispered, my voice muffled through the double masks I wore for my entire shifts. “I’m your second wife, remember?”
He drew a deep breath. “Well I don’t care what anybody says, you look like an angel to me.” He squeezed my hand but there was no strength in it. His fingers barely moved but I felt it.
“I’m so glad to see you Mr. Rogers. Welcome back.”
He smiled. “Oh I only came back to see you angel eyes.” I swear the old coot winked at me. And I knew he was just being silly and crazy and still with us. And for that, I was glad.
Someone would get their husband back. Someone would have a grandfather again. Or a brother. Or a father. And just for a moment. Just for a moment, the endless dark lifted, and it was daylight again.