Three-Day Relationship: Story Of A Nurse & Her Dying Patient

A nurse happily playing with her patient. (Photo: AdobeStock)

I have come to understand over the last 15 years or so that we as stupid humans have sadly and badly defined a successful relationship.

So I, being the non-conformist, fake redhead that I am, decided to give it my own definition. It works for me, so society be damned.

Over the last few years, divorce rates skyrocketing, no real guidance for our youth about family and love, I’ve noticed many people wandering around like wide-eyed cattle, post-relationship, wondering, “What did I do wrong? I couldn’t make it work.”

To this wide-eyed wandering, I would reply, “Did you love? Did you share joy? Did you learn something? It doesn’t matter if your relationship was five days, five weeks, or 50 years. If you were happy, even for a blink, shared love over a cup of coffee, feeling your heart expand into the light, if you learned something about yourself… then your relationship was successful.”

I have yet to meet a single soul who doesn’t embrace that definition with a sigh of relief. Society has defined a successful relationship as marriage till death do us part. This is grossly outdated, and it no longer fits the human beings walking this great earth. Unfortunately, many are still judging themselves based on this outdated version, and finding themselves lacking.

So here I am, telling you about my amazing three-day relationship…

I was called to her hospital room by one of my partners in crime, to draw an arterial blood gas. And when I walked in, I saw my partner standing by the window, waiting for me, but I didn’t even notice her. What I saw was a radiant soft light, emanating from a person I was meant to know.

I was drawn in like a magnet.

She was lying in the light streaming in from the window, silky white hair with just a hint of blonde on the ends, a face lined with 87 years of emotions, trials and triumphs. She was wearing a nasal cannula at six liters of oxygen and gasping softly for air. I quickly studied her from head to toe with one glance, because that’s what I do.

Her breathing was rapid and deep, her fingers were cold and blue to the second knuckle, she was shivering slightly, and I could see her pulse bounding in her throat.

I had to gown, glove and mask at the door because she was in precautions, the beginning stages of COVID-19 having us all acting like paranoid chicken-shits, and taking the human touch out of patient care. As I approached her bedside with my eyes lit up in a smile behind the yellow mask, I said, “Hi, my name is Polly, I’m a respiratory therapist, and I’m here to help my partner draw your blood gas.”

She looked deep into my eyes and nodded. “Those really hurt,” she softly whispered. I said, “Yes, they can, but I’m betting you’ll hardly notice this one.” She nodded and relaxed into her hospital-grade, rock-hard pillow.

I studied the soul before me, deep yet soft laugh lines around her eyes, telling the story of a life lived well, and a wedding ring, gold, yet not cleaned for many many years, as it had just become a part of her, treasured despite its loss of shine.

As I prepped her arm and looked for draw sites, I softly stroked her thin, papery skin, reveling in my mind about the tough fragility lying before me. This woman was a fighter. I deeply admire a fighter. I said to my partner, “You told me she was tough, but you never mentioned that she was also beautiful.” My sweet new friend laid her hand on top of my hand and mouthed, “Thank you.”

She opened her eyes and looked into mine. “Tell me your name again?” she asked. “Polly,” I replied, returning her gaze. She closed her eyes and smiled, “Okay, Pollyanna.” Inside I felt a tugging bond. “How did you know my full name?” I asked. “You are who you are. It’s obvious.” So I told her the story of my name.

My father was a wildland firefighter, in northwestern Montana. He wanted to name me Jenny. He told everyone it was after his favorite black-and-tan Forest Service mule, but it was also the name of his favorite aunt Jen. My dad was gone on a fire when my Mom went into labor mid-October. When he got home three days later, he met me, Pollyanna. I have been a rebellious turd most of my life. Go figure.

As I drew her blood, I hummed a little song, as I always do. It’s more to distract them than to relax me, but it always manages to do both. When I finished, she raised her head off the pillow and said, “Are you done already? I didn’t even feel it?” I replied, “Oh? Would you like me to do it again?”

I pulled off my yellow paper gown and mask as I left the room, and from behind me she asked, “When will I see you again?” I turned and said, “Very soon, I promise.” I left that room knowing we had just started a relationship, and that what I would learn from it would be very hard.

The next morning, I was the lead RT in charge of assignments. I assigned my new friend to me. Day Two in our relationship gave us a chance to explore each other’s lives — meaning I explored hers, because she already knew me and time was running out. As I gowned outside the room, the nurse caught me and told me that the doctor had just been in to see her and discussed end of life and hospice with her.

I replied, “Then she will be needing a friend.”

When I stepped in the door that morning, gowned and masked, she was now on 20 liters and 55% on the high-flow. Things were changing rapidly. I grabbed a chair, sat down beside her, and took her hand in mine. “I hear you got some news this morning?” She nodded. “How do you feel about that?” I asked. Her eyes met mine. “I don’t feel any particular way about it. It is what it is.” I nodded.

“I’d like to go home to my husband,” she said. I asked her about her husband. Her eyes lit up like the night sky as she told me about 69 years with the love of her life. They met when he was 20, he was now 89. As we talked, her phone kept blowing up with texts. “Excuse me, please, I need to answer these, he’s worried about me.” I looked over at the screen. It displayed, “Babe, please tell me you’re okay. I love you.”

My heart exploded like a million shards of glass. I turned away to prepare her breathing treatment and start charting on the computer, and tears slid down my cheeks. Two broken marriages, two amazing children, 53 years of living an amazing life, but I had never been loved like that.

I listened to her breath sounds, gave her a breathing treatment, and increased her oxygen flow to 25 liters. I asked her what I could do for her. She replied, “Get me home to Ray, please.” I told her I would do my very best.

When I left the room, I talked to the doctor and told him that based on her O2 demands, if we sent her home on hospice, she wouldn’t make it home before she died. We pulled in palliative care and made the decision to bring him to her instead. I told the doctor that I was having to increase her flow and oxygen.

We were rapidly changing our game from getting her well with intent to send her home, to just keeping her alive long enough to say good-bye to the love of her life. None of us ever having experienced that kind of love, we were desperate to make it happen.

When I went back in, I said, “I heard you have a hot date?” She opened her eyes, smiled softly and nodded. She asked, “I thought I was going to go home?” I took her hand in mine and said, “That was the original plan. But I can’t get you home. If I take you off this machine, you will not make it home, and I can’t send it with you.”

She studied me. Then she said, “Oh god, I’m dying, aren’t I?” I nodded, tears running down my cheeks. “I didn’t think it would be so soon. What am I gonna tell Ray?” she asked. “He already knows. We’re trying to get him in here today, but he has dialysis. He’s coming in the morning.” She closed her eyes and held my hand tight.

Then I said, “I will do all that I can to make sure you make your hot date. But your job is to hang in there, he wants to see you.”

We had lots of time together that day, as I increased her flow and oxygen and gave her breathing treatments. Her breathing was getting more labored and she could only speak one word between breaths. I covered her with warm blankets, held her hand and we talked.

When Ray got out of the Navy, they lived in Portland, she worked for a company that made medical equipment. She really loved going on field trips to watch the doctors use the equipment that she and her coworkers had made. They  had two sons and had lost one.

She had towhead blonde hair until she was 10 and then it turned brown. I smiled at the beautiful silver with blonde tips and pushed a stray lock from her forehead.

We learned a lot about each other on Day Two of our relationship. I showed her pictures of my children and told her about my life as a Montana ranch kid. I sang to her. I admired her earrings and she said, “I’m vain.” We laughed as I said, “I am too.” We found many things to cling to that day.

At the end of my shift, I handed her off to my replacement. I told her the story of a 69-year love that would be ending the next day when the love of her life got here to tell her good-bye, and extracted a promise to do everything necessary to get her through the night. When I left her bedside, she was on 30 liters and 85% oxygen. She was fading fast.

Day Three came and I woke with dread and hurried to work to find her still with us… barely. She was on 35 liters and 100% oxygen. I called to my palliative care director and said, “She is on her way out, please get him here ASAP.”

This is when COVID-19 hit the hardest. Facilities across the nation were no longer allowing visitors, because we needed to reduce the spread. For five days, her loving husband was not allowed to come in to see her, even though she did not have the virus, until we made her comfort care. At that point, she was deemed end-of-life and allowed one visitor per day.

So when Ray arrived downstairs with their son, only one could come say good-bye. Do you understand? Only one could say good-bye. I am weeping inside and out just typing these ridiculous and horrible words.

As I stood gowned and masked at her side, she was barely responsive. I sponged her dry mouth as she gulped for air. We knew that if we gave her morphine to ease her air hunger, that she would likely not be able to respond at all when Ray arrived. Her oxygen stats were in the low 70’s on 100% O2 and 35 liters of flow. I sat by her side and we waited together.

I told her that I felt I had missed out, that I should have had her longer in my life, that her presence alone in my life would have made it better. She smiled and nodded, and mouthed, “Mine too.” As I rose to adjust her blankets she mouthed, “Don’t go.” I assured her that I was going nowhere. Her hands were blue to the elbows, and her eyes were cloudy and dull… until he walked in.

He was frail and small. We helped him don his gown and mask and he nearly fell to the floor when he saw her. He sat beside her and held her face in his hands and this is what he said:

“I have loved you since the moment I laid eyes on you.”

He whispered words of love and encouragement, and then he fell apart. He begged an apology, saying he couldn’t watch her die.

Well, I guess that leaves me… her friend of three days.

I called in the chaplain and we prayed together. The nurse gave her morphine to ease her air starvation, and an hour later, at 11:10, I heard her last heartbeat. And at 11:11, the Angels came to take her home.  I straightened her covers, brushed her silky hair back, closed her mouth and eyes, and kissed her on the forehead.

She knew I loved her, and I knew she loved me…

I sat there for a few minutes, admiring her unmistakable grace, still radiating from her tiny body. I contemplated the value of her life of adventure, having contributed to this world, having found someone to love for 69 years, and for loving him as much on the last day of their life together as they did at their deepest depth of devotion.

My eyes fell lovingly to her favorite earrings, dangling elegantly, golden and warm against her skin. Each had a large and lovely pearl, lying softly against the radiance of her timeless beauty…muted compared to her. She was a pearl to me, newly discovered and priceless.

As I took in the now silent scene before me, I thanked God and the Angels for our perfect three-day relationship, in which I felt joy, felt warm and perfect love, and learned a lot about myself.

Polly Cavill is a respiratory therapist, author & musical artist. She’s a native of Montana, USA — currently running amok, writing stories and music, and saving lives as the gypsy respiratory therapist that she is, going where the wind and Angels take her. She is deeply passionate about being humane in a changing world, and advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves. She knows that sharing her stories is the only way to open this world up to a new way of thinking, in hopes of creating a better world for all.