By Jess Ma
He passed away on the 107th day. After I got home in the evening, I wrote down everything I could remember about him in my journal. For many days after his death, I often dreamed I was standing in that fluorescently bright ICU room. In the dreams, I would be watching him, and then he would wake up and start speaking to me, with those bright blue eyes glittering with animation and life. I always awoke feeling a little unsettled, not by his death, but rather by the fact that I knew so intimately the ways in which he was kept alive, and yet nothing about the life he lived until just hours before his final breath.
He was an existing patient on the unit when I joined the surgical ICU team, and for 10 days I followed him, tracking how every organ system was doing each day. Everyone on the team knew there was only one way this would end; his quality of life had deteriorated so rapidly since the early summer, after a bout of necrotizing pancreatitis and multiple tragic complications; he was barely able to interact with his own body, much less his environment, and his life was propped up precariously by every possible machine that could perform the function of a vital organ. For him, no medical intervention would add more significant chapters to his story. It was just a matter of when his daughter would be ready to close the book.
Because of the pandemic, visitors were only allowed after 12pm each day. When his adult daughter came to visit each afternoon, I was told to avoid intruding on their cherished private time together. I only ever really saw her shadow behind the drawn curtain as I walked past the room; and I knew that one of the surgeons on the service (a group of surgeons rotated between trauma, acute care, and surgical ICU) would routinely give her calls or meet up with her to discuss how her father was doing, even on days he had off. Surgeons are not generally thought off as doctors who can spend a lot of time just talking to patients – after all, in the time he spent on one of those daily conversations, he could complete an appendectomy. Though neither he, nor the rest of the team, could offer a magic solution, what he offered was crucial – his time.