The death, when it comes, is not wholly unexpected. The patient’s status was reviewed and it was decided that he was not suitable for attempted resuscitation.
So, when he died, no crash bells sounded, there was no frantic stamping of feet towards the trolley. Just that odd moment when someone dies – an expectant quiet, like the moment between a spoon tapping a glass and someone standing up to speak, a little pool of murky silence amid the hub of a busy ward.
And then it breaks, and we start last offices. Some people talk to the patient as if he were still alive. Some work in silence until the job is done, others talk about the coming weekend. I hope I never become that blasé.
The other patients guess. They always do. You come out from behind the curtains and their eyes seek yours, half questioning yet already knowing.
You can’t break confidentiality, so you can’t confirm what they already know and use the opportunity either to reassure them or talk about what this might mean to them. Instead you twitch the curtains shut behind you and ask brightly if that painkiller is starting to work yet.
And when the trolley from the mortuary comes, we go through that endless charade of closing all the curtains so no one can see its arrival and departure. We even have a code name for the mortuary – heaven forbid we should actually call it that. Because death takes place behind closed curtains and doors, not in the bed next to you.
And yet for all the mixed emotions that flood through me – the sadness, the stress and sometimes the relief – I think, ‘gosh, what a privilege’.
What an absolute privilege it is to care for someone as they die, to be with them as they go. The cubicle is quiet, yet somehow not empty. An abrupt juxtaposition to a room full of life.
Arabella Sinclair-Penwarden is a staff nurse in Devon