This is a story I’ve never told anyone, but it haunts me to this day.
About four years ago, I was working as a nurse on a transitional care unit at our local hospital. The unit was designed to be a bridge between a hospital stay and home. Our patients were generally elderly people who were recovering from surgery, needed long-term antibiotics or in general, just needed to regain a little more strength before getting discharged. Although we had occasional very high-needs patients, for the most part we had very few acutely ill patients or emergencies. It was, in general, a happy place where people kind of killed time before getting well enough to go home.
On one particular day, I had been assigned to care for a relatively young woman in the unit. She was only 50 and had undergone some surgery on her leg, so she needed some antibiotics and physical therapy. I knew she had a long history of self-abuse with alcohol and drugs, but there was nothing glaring that stuck out in her medical records. She had no major medical problems going on.
When I walked in her room, however, I immediately had the strangest sensation. Although the patient was simply sitting in her bed in the middle of the afternoon watching TV, her leg propped out in front of her, I felt like the room was cloaked in darkness. I could very clearly see a dark, thick, rolling fog filling the room and as I walked towards her, it felt difficult, as if I was walking with weights on my legs as sand sucked me in. My lungs constricted and I found myself struggling to breathe.
I completed my assessment on my patient, but she remained completely silent during our encounter, her eyes never veering from the TV screen. I had to talk myself through to stay calm in her room as an intense fear and panic took hold of me.
I administered her medications, completed my care, then struggled to move through the room. I burst out into the hallway, where I had to lean on the wall and gulp mouthfuls of air to recover from the intense feeling of choking I had inside the room. Inside, the dread turned to panic, which I feared I wouldn’t escape.
It was the strangest sensation and it continued throughout that shift. Every time I had to go into her room, I felt the awful sensations hit me. My shift ended at 11 pm, and the next morning, I tried explaining what I had felt to my husband.
“It was like I could see darkness in her room,” I told him, words failing to express what I had felt. “I couldn’t breathe in there and I just felt so afraid and panicked, like there was something there…” I trailed off, too uncomfortable just remembering the experience, and vowed to try to forget it.
When I clocked back into work that afternoon, the whole unit was buzzing with news. The nurse supervisor for that day called me aside and explained to me that a patient had very unexpectedly, without any warning or any discernible cause they could find, passed away early that morning.
The woman was my patient from the night before.
I’ll never know what really happened that day, but I know that I will never forget the experience. I’m convinced that somehow, some way I was able to sense that woman’s impending death. It sounds gruesome and morbid and I even felt a little guilty. Should I have said something? Should I have warned her? Did I do enough for her as a nurse?
Of course, there was nothing I could have done or didn’t do that led to her death (and trust me, I checked and double-checked and triple-checked and talked to my supervisor, because it all felt so bizarre), but the experience taught me an important lesson about trusting my intuition.
We know more than we realize and there are forces of life — and death — swirling around us each and every day. Maybe we just need to learn to pay attention.
TapGenes Takeaway: This nurse will never forget what it felt like to be in the presence of death.
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