A Gift in Passing

Reflections on the meaning of life and our obligations to each other

By Mark Moore, RN
St. Joseph Medical Center

He was a young man. We who are older see others that way, but for the sake of numbers, he had reached nearly 50 years. As a nurse, the ominous DNR (do not resuscitate) designation always raises an eyebrow of concern. Beyond that, death was truly imminent and he, lets call him Marty, had come to the hospital to die. His diagnosis was respiratory failure, but aside from a cough, there were no signs of decline yet.

The spirituality of living, to us with a belief in the life of the soul, comes to focus upon the departure of a person from the human family. Martys family responsibly faced the call to be at the bedside for his final hours. Knowing his fate, Marty had taken the question of organ donation seriously. In short, his eyes were to outlive him by transplantation to a grateful stranger. Nowadays we use terms like "eye bank" and "harvest" respectively to describe the repository of eyes and the collection from the deceased for use by the recipient.

So, an arrangement for the gift of sight to another was already in place. Compared to earlier times, this organ reuse seems miraculous. The giving in itself is a new level of self-giving, a very tangible evidence beyond poetry or prayers. In a hospital setting, the key for ethical success is to carry out the wishes of the dying with dignity and a touch of realistic grace. The event is a drama and the players know their parts, sort of. As the nurse, I found myself in the pivotal position as liaison to the family, the doctor and now the eye bank. In a sense, we all wore our "game face." In Franciscan terms, it was facing what St. Francis termed, "sister death."

Martys demise went from the loss of consciousness and personality to a coma state. His family, clearly prepared, mirrored a bit of his decline by becoming increasingly somber, yet approachable. The ever-unanswerable question, "When will he go (die)?" predictably arose, and the vague answer "soon" given.

At the end of my shift, I found Marty had breathed his last. A simple nod conveyed what everyone present knew to be true. The room now seemed smaller and thoughts decreased as emotions took over. Dutifully, a call was placed to the organ donor line, the doctor, the charge nurse and the mortuary. The process never seems natural but is as common as finishing a story and closing a book after reading its last page. Reflections abound on the meaning of life, a passing, our obligations to one another, and the ultimate self-inquiry, "Did I do this right?"

Days later, a token of recognition came in the form of a short card to my work mail. The eye bank expressed its profound thanks and echoed the appreciation of the family in handling things "right." Somewhere a blind person has a new sense and, by living with it, offers thanks moment by moment.

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Mark Moore, RN
Mark Moore, RN