I survived! Un/fortunately, so did my patient. I had my first vigil shift the other night in a hospital room, with a (too young) woman who is dying of cancer. I was there for four hours overnight, watching really bad info-mercials while she slept, and at other times, trying to will her back to sleep like a mother of a newborn baby. She was agitated, which is something that happens sometimes, and kept making moves to take her blanket off and get up. She couldn't have gotten up, and ultimately was doing tiny, confused crunches for an hour- I wanted her to relax, to give in, to let go, to stop trying so hard. She is not verbal, so all I could do was kind of coo to her- I found myself (rather than coming out with "you can go now!") saying "you're doing a great job." I don't know if this is a helpful thing to say to a dying person, but it seemed like the best I could really come up with. I wanted her to know she didn't have to worry about anything, she was doing (as they say in Hospice) the "hard work of dying" and that's all she had to do. That and sleeeeeeeep.
I know the idea of these vigils is to be there when people are dying, and when they die, but she was just going on living, and didn't die while I was there, but it still felt like good work to be doing. In fact, I couldn't help but think that every patient should have someone sitting in with them. A patient across the hall, who had a hard time speaking, kept yelling out to the nurses and hitting his call button. He could really only yell out a syllable at a time, and they couldn't figure out what he wanted. As the night went on I could tell that they were answering his bell less quickly- and sometimes only over the intercom (he couldn't talk!). Finally a staffer went in and figured out that he was cold. He needed his blankets pulled up. It was one of the saddest things I've ever witnessed. I imagined my parents in hospital beds, trying to be understood- and I imagined myself, alone and cold and... alone. My patient's nurse wouldn't have known that my patient was agitated if I'd not been there to tell them, really, and my patient would have been all by herself, doing useless crunches on her way to nowhere.
I'm going back tonight, and will pray like I did the other night for mercy for my patient. Mercy as in "please God, just give this person a BREAK!!" I have my phone charged and my book ready and am hoping she'll just be in a deep deep sleep all night as I count the seconds between her breaths. I know she'll go when she's ready- and if she's ready when I'm there, I'll be glad for her to finally get some real rest.
UPDATE: We both made it through the night again, but my patient passed away early this morning. She seemed much more comfortable last night, and slept almost the whole time. The nursing staff was different tonight and so sweet. I watched them give her medicine and touch her face, check her body for what I knew were signs of impending death. They spoke to her so sweetly and respectfully, even though she was basically unconscious. They seemed so much more caring and sympathetic.
And about that man across the hall. He was still yelling, but this time I could see him a little better as the chairs in my patient's office had been moved. Turns out, he's kind of awful- yelling AT the nurses, grabbing at them, and throwing things at them. True, he did not seem to be "all there" so maybe in his daily life he's a charmer, but not in the hospital. Still, the other difference last night was that the nurses were attentive and patient with him, even when he was grabbing their gloves and refusing to let go. One nurse sat outside his room to do her work so she could keep an ear and eye on him, and even called him "sweetie" at one point. Sweet, he was not. But she was! Overall, my faith in hospitals was greatly improved.