I was standing in the back of the ICU room when the respiratory therapist waived me forward to take my turn doing chest compressions.
I stuck my thumb to my chest and looked at her in disbelief.
“Me?” I said.
“Are you the nurse transporter tonight?”
I nodded, and made my way to the hospital bed where a woman lay dying. The person in front of me stepped down from doing the compressions and the respiratory therapist urged me forward.
I said the only thing that popped into my head.
“I was an English major.”
The respiratory therapist was taking care of the breathing part of CPR, pumping air into the patient’s lungs, and this clearly wasn’t her first Code Blue.
“That’s ok,” she said.
I climbed onto the bed, and with my knees next to the patient, dug hard into my CPR training from a few months ago.
“A little higher,” the respiratory therapist said. She sounded calm. Casual.
“Good,” she said. “Quick and firm.”
The patient’s eyes were open; empty; gone, but with each pump of my hands, all I could think was live. Live. Live. Inches away from my head, her husband held her hand, begging her not to leave him. I saw his tears drip onto the bed. His grief and the sound of machines were all I could hear in the room.
After what seemed like an eternity, the respiratory therapist tapped my shoulder, and I turned so that the next person could take her turn doing compressions.
I faded into the back of the room as the scene unfolded for a few more minutes. Finally, two doctors in the corner of the room looked at their watches and then at each other.
“Should we call it?” one asked.
I was struck by how casual his manner seemed, as the other doctor nodded.
“Yes, let’s call it.”
And with that, someone announced a time of death. The people in the room dispersed and I stepped out into the hallway, trying to take in what I had just experienced. One of the ICU nurses tapped me as she left the room.
“We’ll page you soon,” she said. And looking at my confusion went on, “to take the body to the morgue.”
I went back to the break room where I’d been spending most of the overnight shift at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania in between errands as a nurse transporter. I was in my first round of grad school, my first round of clinical depression, and picking up shifts as a transporter at the hospital. This was my first, and last, overnight shift working as a transporter for the entire hospital.
This was the first time I saw how fragile life really was. How thin the line between life and death could be. I’d been to my grandmother’s funeral. I’d watched my mentor fade away from cancer. But I had never before been in a room when life left and death entered.
At 7:00 am when my shift ended, I walked out into the cold winter streets and got into my car. I could see my breath as I turned the ignition key, and for just a brief moment, tried to appreciate what I’d witnessed overnight.
That life, with it’s struggle, strife, and sometimes endless uphill battles, is a gift. At 22 years old, all I could feel from my life was the struggle - the searching for belonging - the existential crisis of what my journey was supposed to be all about.
But in that moment, as I pulled away from the curb and drove back to my apartment, I saw, for the first time in a long time, that my life was a struggle, but also an opportunity.