Last week Mrs. Hardy was doing so well that the doctors were talking about sending her out to an intermediate care unit. This week that talk has evaporated. She has another blood infection. What the rest of us would consider a brush with death is now a weekly affair for Mrs. Hardy. Her now leathery, yellow-grey face twists into an expression of helpless distress as beads of sweat run down from her forehead. As I look in, her eyes beckon me to come closer. I cannot go right now though, my patients are busy today.
A student nurse, named Joe, who has taken an externship, is assisting Mrs. Hardy's nurse today. At one point he gets up from his chair and moves a few feet to the entrance to the room. I observe him talking with her. “Just relax Betty…You can’t relax?... What’s wrong?... Tell me what the problem is and I will help you.... You can’t tell me?... Well how am I supposed to help you if you can’t tell me?.... I can’t help you if I don’t know what the problem is. I want to help you Betty, but you just need to relax. When you are ready to tell me what is wrong, I will come back and help you.” Joe is new and seems to feel he has discovered something profound – Mrs. Hardy really needs to understand how she fits into his reality. Then he will be able to give her what she needs and she will also not bother him unnecessarily. Will he spend the rest of his nursing career refining this philosophy, or will something touch him more deeply one day?
Mrs. Hardy’s nurse, John, asks me to come and assist with a cleanup. He thinks she may have had some stool. What remains of her large bowel is not attached to anything, and she has stopped even passing mucous months ago, so this is probably not a good sign. As we get ready to turn her, Mrs. Hardy becomes agitated, bracing herself for the agony of yet another turn. “What are you doing? How long will this take?” she asks urgently. As we pull her up onto her side she yells, “Oh Lord! Please help me Lord!” She calls out, “How close am I to death?” and “How much longer do I have?” and all we say to her is that we will be done soon. We are focused on the puddle of blood that she was lying on. It is about two cups, bright red and mixed with mucous. It looks like Jello in places. We start wiping it off of the thighs and buttocks while John calls the resident to see. The doctor explores the situation, provoking more protests from Mrs. Hardy. We do not tell her what we have found, although she can probably figure it out. Why give her more bad news? We finish cleaning and change the sheets. The doctors will stop her heparin drip. Apparently this has happened once before. The heparin is used to stop more blood clots from forming in her large veins, but she will have to do without it now. Profuse rectal bleeding trumps DVTs today.