Death in the ward: Ten years ago this month

I never knew her as such – though, by an odd coincidence, I ended up teaching her daughter two years later – but she had a huge impact upon my life.

Hospitalised for the second time in two months with acute (as it turned out, Seroxat-induced) Hepatitis, I was thin, yellow, in intense pain and hugely over-emotional.

That first night, on a holding ward, I listened as the ninety-year-old man next to me gasped out his breath, having aspirated food into his frail lungs.

The six-bed female ward seemed like a haven of light and peace in comparison – initially.

V. was in the bed to my right, a lady some ten years younger than I – clearly very poorly, attached to bags and tubes, her voice a mechanical rasp of diminishing power. She was in the grip of a life-limiting disease – but was fully expected to survive the chest infection which had brought her in this time round.

Her mother, and other helpers, kept watch, wrote up her notes, sluiced out her tubes, emptied her waste bags, talked to her. I was impressed by their competence, their matter-of-fact attitude, their clear love for this fragile person.

As the day wore on, however, it became obvious that all was not well: V. was sleeping more and more, conscious less and less; she was having to be suctioned regularly and with decreasing effect; her urine bag became ever-darker in colour; nurses and doctors made frequent visits and discussed her oxygen readings.

Did I think she was dying? If I am honest, yes, I did – and I was afraid. Afraid of witnessing her end, of being unable to help, stop it, do anything; afraid, in my own far less weakened state, of the intimations of mortality this would inevitably bring; afraid, and saddened, at the thought of the grief to come for her parents and the child as yet unseen.

Just before Visiting Time, all the curtains were drawn round V’s bed. I could hear her breathing becoming ever-more infrequent and stertorous. I could hear the young helper in with her telling her that she had suffered long enough and that it was all right to go now.

Then I heard muted weeping – and became aware that I had not heard V. breathe in five minutes or more. I knew then that she had died.

I sat very still in my own bed, hardly daring to breathe myself, terrified about what was going to happen next – and then the awful, heart-broken wailing started. Her little girl had come along the corridor to visit her mummy, and had been told that she was dead. The little one’s crying broke my heart. I imagined what it would have been like if it had been my son (who is a couple of years younger) approaching the ward.

A little while later, a gentle nurse came in and closed all the curtains around everyone else’s beds – and explained that they needed to do something on the ward and would be very grateful for our patience so they could have privacy.

I am not sure whether the other women realised at that point that V. had died: I was the closest to her geographically and most of the other ladies had some form of dementia.

The nurses were very discreet, thoughtful; it was all handled with dignity and care. I heard the trolley being wheeled out along the corridor, V’s body hidden in a lower recess – and then the lovely nurse opened our curtains.

I asked her outright – and she confirmed that V. had, indeed, died, that it had been unexpected and very sad, that everyone had hoped that she would be going home in a few days.

Forward a few years – and I met her parents (who were the little girl’s guardians) at a parents’ evening at the school where I taught. I debated with myself whether I should say anything – but decided in the end that I would: Told them that I had been the lady in the bed next to their daughter when she passed away, and also said how impressed I had been by her bravery and the close family bond, and how the child clearly came from a truly lovely and special clan.

They were, I think, genuinely touched.

In an odd way, it was a privilege to be there at this lady’s final moment – just as, later, it was a privilege to teach her delightful daughter.


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