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Winston: Death Is Beautiful

This story will forever go into the “I will never understand but isn’t that a beautiful thing” category.

Aspect of life and death

The Man Of The Hour

Winston was an elder man with Parkinson’s disease whom I met while working on the floors of Sibley Hospital in 2006. I was a rookie therapist put on the medical-surgery floor, 6 West. My primary job at the time was to help patients ambulate, strengthen, educate them to safely negotiate the bathroom, and train them to use walkers, canes, crutches and even the occasional adult diaper change.

I encountered Winston in a sickly state. I would help him maximal assistance for a transfer from lying in his medical bed to the chair. On some days, he would need to get to the bathroom, and with the help of my nurse friends, we’d help him shuffle to the bathroom. I’d offer a few sitting exercises and breathing exercises.

I didn’t feel like I could do much and he rarely spoke, so I didn’t have much connection with him.

My goals were relatively simple, get patients home with assistance or none. I always walked the floors of my hospital thinking how sad it must be to be cooped up here with strangers and beeping machines, funky smells, and a catheter to boot. I mean have you seen someone insert a catheter on a man before?! I have, it will be something I will never forget witnessing. Ouchy!!!

Anyhow, for Winston, my goals were the same, thinking the comfort of your own home is much better. One day I went up and knocked on his door, and he was sitting upright on his bed, as if, he were waiting for me to do physical therapy with him? The lights of the sun gleaned his room’s windows, and it was indeed a bright morning. We walked, we talked, I made him laugh a little, and I finally felt like I was making a breakthrough.

After we finished, I told him I’d fill out discharge forms for him so he could go home. What a joyous occasion?

Looking Through Different Lenses

I went to the nurse's station feeling all good about myself and for Winston. I said to the nurse, Pam, something of nature “Wow, did you see Winston walk and work with me today, I think we need another one of those days, and he should be ready for discharge." Pam seemed to know something I didn’t, she laughed at me and said: “Tomorrow he is going to die!”

I looked dumbfounded at her remark and thought “what the hell was her thinking…was she joking?,” I thought to myself.

She said right after, “Don’t you know, everyone has ONE good day before they pass.” No, I didn’t know!

So, I went home thinking about what Pam said. I refused to believe this comment. The next day, I was expecting Winston to be up in bed, ready to go. As I approached the 6 West, there was a bunch of nurses crowded in front of his room. There were announcements for the Chaplain to hurry to 6 West. Lots of fuss was going on, as people ran by me, as I stood there. Could this be, Pam was correct?!

I rushed to see if I could help, but I stood helplessly behind several staff members, witnessing what I will never forget for the rest of my life.

The PA announcements kept going on for another 10 minutes, while I watched Winston suffering, laboring to breathe and gasping struggling to stay alive. Waiting just waiting for that moment. The Chaplain raced past me went to Winston’s side.

He said a prayer while holding Winston’s hand. I just couldn’t believe this was happening right in front of me! They finished a prayer. Winston shed a single tear, and his hand went limp in the Chaplain’s, and he was gone.

I think I held my breath through the whole thing because it must have been another minute before I finally took one. Winston, he was gone, just like that. So many thoughts raced and left my mind, but the last one I could think of at that moment was that Winston was “Bad-Ass” and went out the way he wanted to. I celebrated for him, with awe in this final culmination, and I had a front rows seat in it all.

Of course, I was sad about the event, but it has impacted me every day of my life and with these lessons, so too does it impact the patients I encounter.

In the two and half years at Sibley, I came to watch this occurrence many times, the final good day. It’s known that a tree before it dies goes into full bloom, and turns bright days before and then it sheds all its leaves before it passes.

Human Essence

I wonder if this is our version of it? This phenomenon is one of life’s mysteries I will never come to know. I watched it time and time again. Families would be excited about this one good day, and I would know in the back of my heart what tomorrow’s outcome would be. I wouldn’t be like Pam and break the bad news to these families hopeful of discharge home. I made sure their one last day was good and that they were surrounded by love, care, and anything I could offer (even the occasional piece of chocolate or scratch ‘n’ sniff happy face sticker).

Life (even the process of death) is a beautiful thing, and to witness Winston leave this planet still chokes me up today. I make sure I bring that philosophy to all our patients at Rehab and Revive.

With the end in mind, I always believed that every day is a chance to start over if you want to. After all, you never know when your last good day might be...

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