Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Coworker Died in My Arms

There are people in this world who witness death on a recurring basis. These would perhaps be soldiers in the battlefield or hospital staff. There are those who encounter it on an occasional basis. These would probably be firemen and policemen. Finally, there are those who almost never come face to face with human demise, but eventually, over the course of a long lifetime, inevitably will. This would be you and me.

But no matter how frequently or infrequently one experiences the parting of a human soul from its host, the first time must rattle us in profound and memorable ways.

On May 11, 2011 it was the first time for me. Yes, I had once been asked - during a visit to my late grandmother in the hospital - to hurry to a room where a man was expiring, so that I could join with ten men in a quorum to say the proper prayers for a soul departing to heaven. At that point however, the gentleman's fate was sealed and the lines long gone flat, and the machinations of the hospital staff a mere formality.

This time however, it was a man - a coworker, a friend - in his vitality, who went from his normal, cheerful, everyday, working self to lifelessness in a matter of minutes, right before my eyes, and right in my very arms.

This is what happened:

We work in the technology field. Our office space is divided into cubicles. We're in a basement with piping that makes odd sounds every once in a while. So odd, that some customers on the phone sometimes comment on it.

I thought I heard the sound again, but it was a bit different this time. So different it caught my attention. The pipes were making a strange choking sound. Choking sound? What are the pipes doing making a choking sound? Should I report this to Facilities? No wait, that sounds like a person choking!

I got up out of my seat to see if everything was alright with anyone present. Two cubicles over, my coworker was on the ground. He was on his stomach. He was seizing. I had witnessed a seizure before. I knew what I had to do. I ran over to him and rolled him onto his side as the seizures continued. I grabbed at his tongue and jaw to keep his airway open. I tried to calm him and jostle him awake.

One other colleague was in a nearby space. I asked him to call a nurse and call 911. He did just that as I continued to keep the airway open and keep our friend on his side. He was of considerable size, so I had to hold on to him to keep him sideways. I didn't want to violently shove him to a wall for stabilization.

Suddenly things changed. I had felt something of a pulse before, but it was now gone. I couldn't find it. His jaw clenched, he wet himself, his face and fingers started turning blue, his eyes opened and his irises blew all the way to the corneas. There was no more inhalation or choking or seizing or movement or anything. All I could feel was one steady, slowly, softly exhaling breath, and then there was nothing.

This was not good. This was not good at all. I understood that the seizure was not something to worry about now. Everything had stopped. I had to start compressions. I pushed him onto his back and began.

The head nurse appeared. She placed an oxygen mask over his mouth, continued compressions. More nursing staff came. A Code Blue was called. We moved him to a more open area. My colleague who had placed the calls performed some compressions, then starting cutting at our coworker's shirt. I was so desperate to DO something that I practically shoved him aside, grabbed the shirt, and yanked it apart with one stroke. More nurses came. They opened the airway, they bagged him, they brought the electronic defibrillator, they compressed and compressed and compressed and got nothing in return.

The paramedics arrived fifteen minutes into the ordeal. They continued where the nurses left off, pumping the bag, compressing, trying to get a line in. This proved difficult because of his heft and the EMTs practically drilled holes into him to get the line in. Blood streamed from his shin and wrist.

I stepped back to give them room and called my supervisor to apprise him of what was going on. My right hand was shaking so badly I couldn't grip the receiver.

They took our friend away, twenty minutes after I heard the sounds that began the nightmare.

Dozens of people were in our office space, which seats only seven people. All of them were stunned. They all left mournfully, defeated and saddened.

Those of us who witnessed everything stayed behind and placed calls to our supervisors providing them with all the detail. Through some cosmic accident, it fell to me to explain to our coworker's wife exactly what happened. I tried to be as minimally graphic as possible, but I couldn't think straight. I think I rambled. I was not prepared for this. I did my best. She seemed to be calmer than I was.

After this conversation, I called my supervisor. I told him I need to take the rest of the day off. I needed to see my wife and to cling to her.

En route to seeing her, our CIO arranged a conference call for the IT staff. I dialed in on my cell. He confirmed that our friend was gone and thanked me and my colleague and everyone present for their efforts. I was just grateful that I had the presence of mind to know what I needed to do and to do it. My only panic moment was when I delivered the information to the wife, nay, widow, but I think I did okay in that regard.

My wife came out to meet me. I talked it all out with her. It put me in a centered place. We traveled home together and I hugged my children dearly when we came home.

Once they were asleep I set about writing this piece. Writing is my therapy. I feel better by a few more degrees. They'll be offering counseling at my workplace, and I'll take advantage of it. I'm not a stubborn man, and I'm not sure or unsure if I've endured anything in the realm of PTSD.

I did what I could under the circumstances, so I don't blame myself for that. I think I do blame myself a little bit for not motivating my friend to get himself in shape. I do so for many other friends, why didn't I do so with him? I may have failed him in this regard.

So the moral for me is to continue living my healthy life and doing my best to motivate others to do the same. The moral for you is to take good care of yourself. I think we'd all prefer to shuffle off this mortal coil in our sleep at a time when we've been old and full of days, rather than at the young age of 54, leaving twin fifteen year old girls behind.

They'll miss him terribly, and we, his coworkers, will miss him profoundly and I will miss him inestimably. He was a good man and he was too young when he left us. Rest in peace, my friend.


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