A ventilator can mean the difference between life and death for seriously ill patients. But sometimes even these ventilators cannot save someone’s life. I looked at the age Mr. Smith had progressed through his short three-week stay at our hospital: a non-active otherwise healthy 86 year old, to mini-stroke, to heart attack, and now near death. Through the multiple layers of protective gear, I stroked the thin aging hair. His eyes remained shut but somehow I felt some connection. 

Medical teams face tough decisions about when to stop treatment. The decision is made after careful consideration, analyzing factors including age, underlying health, response, and ability to recover. With our hospital at 94% capacity of COVID, I volunteered to assist the attending physician Dr. Nessie (also a sister/nun). Our presence ensured Mr. Smith would not pass alone. 

Restrictions meant this man would die without family. Dr. Nessie used an iPad, assured the family their father was not in pain, looked very comfortable, and asked about her Mr. Smith’s wishes and religious needs.” The curtains were closed, we turned off all the alarms, watched the heart rate monitor hit zero, and just like that, flat line (death). 

After processing, Dr. Nessie asked, “Normally, I don’t get volunteers. Why today?” 

“I felt I needed to give back. I couldn’t be there when my father passed away. I am trying to give someone what I couldn’t.”

“I am so sorry for your loss.” Dr. Nessie continued, “When did he pass?”

Glancing at my watch, “About two-hours and forty-three minutes ago.”

My father passed away 1,400 miles away and several weeks shy of his 89th birthday. Like Mr. Smith, only the Hospice nurse and nursing home staff were with him. My mother and I were able to view his passing via an iPad. It is a connected disconnected way to say goodbye. You are a witness but excluded from end of life moments that regularly occurred during pre-COVID times. One could hear the election coverage echoing from another room, “F*** it. I am tired of watching this s***,” he reasoned and left. Now he’s just another CNN/MSNBC statistic. 

Nearly 20 years ago, my father had an Near Death Experience (NDE). During his time in a coma, he claimed God sends two types of angels: ‘takers’ and ‘helpers.’ “Takers’ help the newly deceased to heaven. ‘Helpers’ assist people in moments of crisis, such as heart attacks, car accidents, and other calamities. In the years following his NDE, we’d walk during late summer evenings and discuss how no one actually dies alone, that there is always an angel(s) present even if one can’t see them.

Personally, I sensed no such presence in either death. One cannot detect the extraordinary via an iPad. Yet, I hope both Mr. Smith and my father experienced God’s loving angels, who cared for them in their hour of need; that each of them saw the extraordinary in the ordinary; that each were embraced by Chrrist’s love. 

If today’s election and deaths must be connected, may we find hope in Abraham Lincoln’s words. “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”