A patient arrived by ambulance from another hospital, breathing with great difficulty and moaning loudly. Standing nearby and sensing an urgency to have him taken to a room, I lend a hand. Four of us slide him from the gurney onto a bed. Calming noises, words and touch to help him settle: you’re safe now, you’re at hospice, we’ll get you something to lessen your pain. In quick succession nurses bring morphine, injecting it at previously established sites. More injections to assist with breathing and congestion. And all the while, this loud moaning with every breath, gurgling inhale, and laboured exhale; eyes rolled inward and up, pupils barely visible.
And what do I do in the midst of all this skilled fussing? First standing then sitting at his bedside, one hand gently on his heart space, the other stroking his stubbly cheeks, his balding head, I quietly hum, aligning my breath to his, offering undivided presence.
Half an hour later, I’m still there: he’s near death, that much I understand. By common consent, I remain to accompany him on this last walk. Nurses and physician come and go, monitoring as his moaning turns to whimper, each gesturing to me: thank you. Not having seen his chart, I know nothing of his faith background. I offer prayer fragments at random*: The Lord is my Shepherd ~ Acknowledging my limited power before Allah’s infinite might, and asking for help from Him ~ O God, I beseech Thee, the things he seeketh from the ocean of Thy grace and loving-kindness ~ Oh Great Spirit, Whose voice I hear in the wind, Whose breath gives life to the world, Hear me! ~ Dear God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me ~ The Light of God beside me. The Light of God within me ~ May you be free from fear, May your heart be filled with joy ~~~
Eventually a volunteer comes to take my place. I bow to her and to him, then leave the room. Slowly my attention expands from being focused on the patient to my own body. What’s happened to my pain? For three days now I’ve had difficulty standing upright after sitting, feeling this piercing pain in the lower back at L4-L5. And now, after being sandwiched between wall and bed for over an hour, leaning over the bed rail in a prolonged half-twist — I sense no pain whatsoever! Is that what happens when we give our full attention to another person’s suffering? Where does our own pain go?
images: (top) Sir Charles Bell. (1865). The anatomy and philosophy of expression: as connected with the fine arts. 5th ed. London: Henry G. Bohn; (middle) Albrecht Dürer. (1508). Study of praying hands. Brush and ink, 29 x 20 cm. Vienna: Albertina Collection; (bottom) x-ray of lower spine. * prayers: Christianity (Psalm 23), Islam, Baha’i, First Nations/Naive American, Thomas Merton (Roman Catholic), Irish, Buddhism.