(Fourteen years ago this week, a healthy young college student came to our university health clinic ill with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia. His family gave permission for his story to be told. I share this again to honor the patients, young and old, who have fallen victim to the even more devastating COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years, as well as their families who have not had the same privilege of being at their bedside as they die. And honoring the health care workers who have witnessed so many preventable deaths over and over and will never truly recover from that experience.)
Nothing was helping. Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible. A twenty year old man – completely healthy only two weeks previously – was dying and nothing could stop it.
The battle against a sudden MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus) pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza infection had been lost. Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating. He was no longer responsive to stimuli.
The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.
After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.
Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.
He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.
His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek. He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:
It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.
His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.
As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace. The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.
And he left us.
His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital as his flesh and heart had failed.
This young man, now lost to this mortal life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.
This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace could lead him home.