A man died right in front of me today. While it’s true that many people recover at Bongolo Hospital, because of God’s presence, who should have died, but not everybody lives. This afternoon, Joures (‘Juress’) and I were working on non-functioning lights in the Emergency Room building. We had just positioned the ladder to replace a burned out four foot fluorescent light bulb, but before Joures could climb the ladder, a crisis broke out behind the curtain in the patient room right in front of us. It was immediately clear that a person was suddenly in life and death situation. Very quickly, we folded the ladder and moved out of the way. Seconds later, Dr. Renee Valach came quickly from another part of the hospital and took over from the nurse. She was followed quickly by another nurse and a surgical resident, as well as by about 8 family members and friends. ER room access rules at Bongolo are much different from back home.
Joures and I made to leave the building, when Renee called out, “Doug, is that you?!” I pulled back the curtain and she asked me to go get a monitor from her office in the next building, that it was right next to her book shelf. I nodded, “Yes” and was on my way. I prayed God would help me get there because I’d only been in her office once and there are a lot of buildings! Fortunately, I found it on the first try. But there was no monitor where she said it was! As I was frantically scanning the room, one of the ER nurses came in. He couldn’t find it, either. I pointed to a small monitorish looking device that I thought was the right one, but he said it wasn’t. I left it there and we ran back to the ER. I told Renee I couldn’t find it, that I didn’t know what to look for! She pointed at a small monitor over her head and said it looks kind of like that one. Oh my gosh! It was just like the one I wanted to bring!
I ran back, nearly pushing my way through the gathering throng of family and friends, grabbed the machine and its cords, and sprinted back. As I slid through the people and into the patient’s room, I called out, “Here it is!” Renee looked up from hand pumping oxygen into the man’s mouth and said she didn’t need it any more, to put it there on the floor. The air went out of me, as well. I did as she instructed, then slid back out. I moved to the other side of the room and prayed. More and more family came and went. Cell phones rang. I watched as Renee administered CPR, injected adrenalin and other medicines. Nothing worked. His pulse slowed each time she looked up to check the monitor.
Twenty minutes or so passed; he was gone. After declaring him dead, Renee did a few other things. As is typical in Gabon, wailing and crying immediately began; more and more people flooded in and out. I stood there, silently praying, then made my way to the door. She looked up, for some reason caught my eye and gravely shook her head. I was flooded with all kinds of emotions. I didn’t know the man and hadn’t been part of his story until a few minutes earlier, but I fought back tears. I felt sad, helpless and numb. I’d done everything I could, but still felt like I’d been in a losing fight. I started questioning if whether I’d have just brought the monitor the first time if it would have made a difference. In my gut, I knew that was ridiculous, but it was hovering there, just the same.
The last time I’d felt this way was when I witnessed someone die in 1992. My family and I were living just outside of Pittsburgh in Avalon, PA. Our home was on the main street, and directly across from us was a small very nice four-story senior citizen independent living building. Like our home, it was quite old, made of brick, and carved into a typical Pittsburgh hillside. That day, I was out in my front yard and I glanced up to see a very elderly man who was already having trouble walking, attempt to go up a hilly portion of the sidewalk. For some reason, he made a sharp left up the even steeper grassy portion. I watched as he tottered. As he started to fall, I was headed across the street as fast as I could. But, I was too late. He fell straight backwards and I heard his head hit the concrete; it sounded like a melon breaking. I reached his side yelling for someone to call 911, but by the amount of blood oozing from behind his head, it didn’t look good. I tried to pray and talk with him about Jesus, but I’m not exactly sure what came out of my mouth. A couple of minutes later, an ambulance arrived, but it was too late. He passed quietly away. I was stunned. It had happened so quickly! I’ve kept a close eye out for tottering people ever since.
I never got any more information about him. But, God provided the answers I needed me today that I didn’t get those many years ago. I was just getting back to my apartment after work when Dr. Izzi and Joanna Thelander walked past, on their regular workout. After quick greetings, I told them I’d seen my first person die here. Izzi nodded and told me that he was the principle of the big high school in Lebamba, and that his dying was really tragic. I thanked them. A few minutes later, I’d changed into my running clothes and had made it to the bottom of the first hill. I figured a run might help. As it turned out, one of the surgical residents I’ve gotten to know ‘just happened’ to come walking up the hill toward me. I stopped and asked him what he knew about the man’s death in the ER today. We walked together part way back up the hill and Elysee (‘Ellisay’) told me that the patient had been brought to the hospital yesterday in a coma. He’d suffered a major stroke at home, likely as a direct result of not faithfully taking his blood pressure medicine. I thanked him, breathed a sigh of relief that I’d somehow not killed him, and continued on my way.
Any of us could die today. Like these two men, we all are very fragile beings in spite of what our egos. I recently read about a 40 year old who said he felt like a 20 year old until he hung out with 20 year olds. Then, he felt like a 40 year old! I can relate to that. A similar reality is that while we may feel ‘eternal’, any of us could gone from this world in the blink of an eye. Are you ready?
Another perspective of “gone in the blink of an eye” is that some chances to lovingly serve others are the same – flashes of opportunity, and if we don’t jump on them almost instinctively, they’re gone. While I don’t have any medical training, I celebrated that I jumped into both of those situations. My goal is to love and live like Jesus wants me to: all out.* I tried my non-medical best to help both of the men who died in my presence. Sadly, neither attempt resulted in a longer life for either of them. The good news is I’m not kicking myself for not doing more. I’m celebrating that I did all I could with what I had – I’d responded in a time of need. This time. Every day, I’m working on doing this better and better. At the end of it, I’m excited to one day get to Heaven (because of my faith in Jesus as my Lord and Savior, not because of my actions). One of my hopes is to get a big hug and hear God say to me, “I’m proud of you. Your life was awesome!”
Lessons so far:
It’s enough to do all I can. It would have been easy to beat myself up in both of those situations because I didn’t have any medical training beyond Boy Scout merit badges and life guard first aid, but, I didn’t. I did what I could.
Jumping at the opportunity to help someone is its own reward. Be spontaneous and generous. That’s the stuff of life.
It’s OK to be incredibly upset when something terrible happens, especially when it’s right in front of you. Tears are OK.
How enthusiastically am I living my life right now?
Adventures with God are my day-to-day experience!
* Note: You’ve got to read Bob Goth’s great book of stories and life lessons, Love Does. It’s a powerful fast read. I want to live how Bob describes the Christian life: a life of all out giving to and loving others. No holds barred and no regrets, combined with more and more surrendering to and trusting in God, my Good, Good Father.