“To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself?”
—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
For all my healthcare brothers and sisters in this current COVID crisis.
It is very quiet in the donor room. I try not to imagine the sounds made only days ago by the six-year-old boy now lying motionless, lifeless, under the paper drapes that cover the sterile surgical field. Instead I move through the setup of instruments, sponges, and sutures.
It is hard to resist temptation to wonder if he played baseball, had a sister whose hair he pulled, or squealed with glee as he wrestled his dog. I push away the image of him fighting bedtime before saying goodnight to his mother. “I love you, Mommy.”
I call all my training to the front lines in the battle to silence my heart. I focus on the rhythmic hum of the breathing machine pushing oxygen to organs we will harvest and place in other children’s ailing bodies. Despite my intense focus on the precious little gentleman in our care, the machine’s voice stays on the periphery of the oppressive silence resting in the room.
The surgeon stretches his hand toward me. For a little more than a second, we make eye contact. He says nothing. I need no words. I place the scalpel in his hand, and it begins.
At twenty-six years old, I am a skilled and practiced surgical technician. I know this is not the time to attempt dialogue. I don’t expect the banter and camaraderie I’ve come to enjoy in other operating rooms and different situations. Gurneys carrying patients roll past the closed door but are of no consequence to me. I take no notice of chatter at the scrub sinks.
I don’t dare step from behind my mask of a honed technician, to ask the question that will reveal my humanity. I stay well-guarded in the busyness of routine. I move methodically, efficiently, thinking carefully about my task—the mental equivalent of moving one foot forward, and then the other. I proceed alongside the doctor who is also stepping forward with one foot and then the other. We have done this dance before. We know the choreography by heart.
This child is my patient. He has been declared dead by medical and legal criteria. But in this room, in this hour, under these lights, and with all I have, I offer the gentlest of care for his dignity. Touching a little leg draped with a sterile sheet I attempt to connect with his young soul and let him know someone is here. He is not alone in these last, silent hours.
The surgeon puts his hand out. I respond. I place one metaphorical foot in front of the other. My eyes are the only visible part of my face. I will them to continue scanning the field in anticipation of the physician’s needs and order them to lock their tears behind stoic lenses unclouded by cataracts of emotion while, with tenderness, I hold in gloved hands the sacred hush. I am one of the last to feel life’s warmth in this little frame. I am noiseless as I again touch the small draped leg close to where I stand.
At the procedure’s conclusion, I attend to legalities of filling out paperwork. I head to the locker room, strip off my surgical clothes, and step into the shower. With hot, pulsing water cascading over me, I wait for the answer that my youthful mind insists will come if I just keep asking. I rest in the void of the unanswered query. Weak and tired, I surrender.
There are people I work with who say we cannot always know reasons for some earthly experiences. Still, my coworkers believe a power greater than us has the answers. Tonight, like never before, my heart craves their faith, their wisdom, their understanding. I find comfort in the words they’ve spoken. And I allow those words to flow over me with the tumbling water and unanswered question.
When I step from the shower, I dress and leave before the rest of the OR crew gathers for our weekly pilgrimage to the College Inn for enchiladas and half-priced drafts. No food or drink tonight. Not tonight. I start the short walk to my apartment on the edge of the hospital campus. I am alone.
My shoulders slump with heaviness as I think, not for the first time, about the boy’s parents. Where are they? Do they know their treasured child was not alone in the end? Do they understand he was treated with tenderness and love even as we disconnected the breathing machine? Are they holding each other in the shadows of both losing and giving hope with the stroke of a pen?
I’m two blocks from the hospital. It is safe to cry now. No permission is needed; none is sought. I move on and am careful to place one foot and then the other. My thoughts return to the words of faith shared by coworkers. I sense a presence I do not know but welcome into my silent space.
Now it is okay to ask, “Why?” Only this one word accompanies me on my journey.
Tomorrow I will start a new day and return to work. Perhaps I will help alleviate suffering by assisting with a gallbladder removal or repair of a broken hip. Maybe I will witness the miracle of new life at a baby’s birth. But tonight, tonight I think only of the little boy who slipped from this world into the next with me at his side.
At home I sit bathed in dim light. I am motionless, pensive, in awe of life, with respect for death. And I remain very quiet.
Illustration by Sally M. Cordrey
Excerpt from the book Jesus in Shorts: Twenty-Five Short Stories of Life-Changing Jesus Moments, Copyright 2018
This story was written because a friend of mine, Patricia Raybon, and I sat having coffee one day when she asked what it was really like to work in the OR. I told her that it was fast-paced and most of the time it looked like any other work situation, with friendships and camaraderie among co-workers. That was, however, not the atmosphere in the transplant donor rooms. As we spoke, I drifted back to my days as an OR technician and first assistant. I found myself telling a story I had never told another living soul. I was back at a table where I stood over forty years prior to this conversation. I was recounting a memory I tried to bury deep in my heart and soul, for self-preservation. Patricia asked if I had ever written this story and I said, “No.” I could not consider that. I could barely speak it. But this is a woman I admire very much and I’ve always listened to her as she is a wise teacher. She convinced me to write it. I did and then submitted it to a Writer’s Digest Short Story Competition. It won honorable mention in the contest. Since then, it has been published in my second book, “Jesus in Shorts.” It has never appeared on my blog before now. God has used it to minister to many people who have had to make the agonizing decision to donate organs of a loved one, especially a child, after their death.
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