Thursday, 4 February 2021

The heaviness of being a witness to the worst news


They called me in for a patient who was short of breath. That's one of the most common reasons we take chest x-rays - they happen every day. 
On the way from the emergency department to my x-ray room she apologized for me having to come in. On weekends, we don't have scheduled shifts at the hospital; we are on call for emergencies. About 10% of the patients apologize for having us called in, and I always find it very endearing. After all, that's the purpose of us being on call, and it's not like we are doing it for free, which is what I usually tell them, and what earns me a relieved laugh. 

On that happy note, we proceeded into the treatment room. I made a comment on her first and middle names, which she shares with a rather famous royal British princess. We were chatting about people who are obsessed with following the goings-on of the British royalty, while I was processing the first image of her chest x-ray. 
And my heart plummeted. 
There was something huge on her chest. 
I stared at it for a moment, shocked, before continuing my small talk, even though it was now more forced than before. We are not allowed to comment on anything we see, and when the patient asks, we have to tell them to wait for the doctor's report. It's not easy sometimes. 

As soon as I had returned her to the ER, I went to the doctor. 
"You have to take a look at her chest x-ray right away," I urged him. He obliged, and I stood over him as he pulled up the images on his screen. As soon as he saw them, our eyes met in mutual horrified understanding. 

He had to take her and her husband to the private consultation room later that day to tell them the bad news. 
I never knew the official diagnosis, due to the many complicated rules that guard a patient's privacy and the confidentiality of their records. 

But for the next three months, I x-rayed her every weekend I was working. She was as positive, kind and upbeat as she was the first time I had seen her, but her body was wasting away. She grew weaker every time I saw her. 
Bound by the invisible rules of our positions, we never mentioned what was going on. But we both knew. 

Two weeks ago she passed away. 
I still remember her saying how hopeful she was for the new year, and the new hope it represented. 


I x-rayed another patient. Just a quick, run-of-the-mill outpatient chest x-ray. They are the most common x-rays we do, and we usually whip them off in a couple of minutes once the patient is in the room. I always ask why they're here, and she gave me one of the most common reasons: "I get really short of breath."

I took the first picture, and it was processing while I was taking the second one.
As soon as I saw it coming up, my insides went cold. 'Not again', was all I could think. 
"How long has this been going on?" I managed to ask. 
"About 4 months, I think," was the answer. 
"Do you have any idea what's causing it?" I asked, hoping against hope. 
"No, not yet," she said, confirming my worst fears. 

I alerted the doctor as soon as she was gone, making sure they would take a look at it right away. 
It was as bad as I had feared. 


A patient arrived via ambulance. He was severely short of breath and disoriented, but it took a while before we got the full scope of his condition. In short: he was dying. There wasn't much of anything we could do for him. He was an exceedingly sweet man, telling us much about his life, which we listened to patiently, while frantically contacting his family behind the scenes. 
We managed to contact them. They came, conferred, and then they all moved him to his home town. We don't know what's happened to him since.

Some days, this job is heavy. 

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10 comments

  1. Hugs. It sounds really hard.

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    1. Most days aren't like that, fortunately. That was a tough couple of weeks. I've been taking it slow and let the sadness unfold. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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  2. So heartbreaking. I can't imagine what it's like to do your job, but thank you for doing it with grace and empathy.

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    1. It's mostly rewarding. I love my job! That was a series of bad events that all happened just one after another. I hope it's done for now.

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  3. It does sound very heavy some days. that must be hard on you. Thank you for what you do.

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    1. I love it most days. That was a really dark period that is hopefully over for now.

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  4. Oh, Miriam. Sending you a huge hug. I can feel the heaviness as you write. Funny... as I was writing "heaviness" I thought how strange such a difficult word has the same root as "heaven". So is it then that the heavy days, the hard days, are the places you most deeply bless your community of people, the places where heaven is playing out? You are blessed in your work my girl and you are a blessing to your community.

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    1. There is great comfort in your words, Elaine. Thank you for that!

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  5. Oh I can't find the words.. it must be so hard to be confronted with the ending of a life like that. Hope you're doing ok.

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    1. I'm not having the best time right now, but I'm getting through it. Lots of rest and reading are helping, plus having the dogs all around me. They're so full of life, they make me happy every day! ♥️

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