Early this morning in the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit), I witnessed one of the most horrifying things that can happen in this world: a mother watched her 2-year-old daughter die.
The mother rushed into the room upon hearing her daughter would not make it. She barged in screaming incoherently, pushed aside the nurses and residents, and clutched at her daughter. The mother’s face was red, contorted in agony, emanating a primal desperation. When she found her daughter sprawled on the hospital bed cold, blue, bloated, and silently motionless, she howled even louder and collapsed to the ground. There, on the PICU floor, she writhed as if possessed, shrieking like a banshee, filling the room with her agony.
There standing over her was the gigantic team of PICU personnel, all at a loss for what to do. She couldn’t hear our words. We tried to calm her with soft touches, but she batted us away. We wanted to leave her to mourn in privacy, but she was lying in front of the door, trapping us in the room to intrude on her suffering. Eventually, we were able to slip out, but even there we heard her wailing echo down the hall.
Everyone was fazed. Now remember, PICU nurses and doctors only care for precariously sick kids. They knew. Still, they can never really be ready. They fought valiantly against the little girl’s inexorable death, initiating Code Blue two hours prior. The girl’s lungs failed first, then her heart, then every other organ in her fragile body. Her skin mottled blue, her arms and legs grew cold, her abdomen became rock-hard as she bled internally. For two hours, what kept the girl barely alive was a train of nurses and doctors trading off to squeeze pure oxygen into her lungs and pump her heart with violent chest compressions.
The team hopelessly sustained the girl with CPR until the moment the mother arrived and knocked them aside. This was the mother who had her daughter cut out of her premature and feeble, barely able to breathe with hypoplastic lungs. Not long after, the mother learned that her daughter had widely metastatic cancer so advanced that even the most daring surgeon dared not operate. The mother had spent the last months tethered to her daughter in the hospital. Now, she grasped desperately at her daughter’s cold contorted body as her last breath slithered out and her exhausted heart quivered for the last time.
We watched unwillingly, powerless to help, bearing witness to the culmination of her suffering. It was truly troubling. After a solemn debriefing session, the PICU staff had to recover enough to resume care of the other kids on the unit. However, the mother staggered out of the PICU — alone — to bury her daughter and mourn. Her unspeakable, unthinkable, protracted suffering continues.
* all identifying medical information has been written to maintain anonymity