Until this week, it’d been a long time since I’d had a real, full on, this-is-what-we’re-here-for cardiac arrest call. In the last four days, I’ve had three. The worst came early this morning. There was nothing unusual about what had happened – an elderly female had passed away unexpectedly in her sleep and been discovered by her daughter. What was more unusual was the daughter’s reaction – she was utterly hysterical. All I could hear was “dead, dead, dead”.
After discovering – eventually – who was dead and why, I offered the resuscitation instructions. The caller didn’t do them and she didn’t reject them. Instead, she described her mother’s appearance – stiff, freezing cold, mauve. It was like she was telling me this so that *I* would say she was beyond help, so she wouldn’t have to make that call herself. But of course, I couldn’t say that. I ploughed on with the instructions, but as it turned out, the caller bottled it when she felt her mother’s icy skin. She couldn’t go on. She knew her mother was gone. The minutes between this decision and the ambulance arriving were long for both of us. There was nothing left to do or say, no way I could make things better. Usually I would ask for irrelevant details like medical history and postcodes to fill this gap and make the caller feel like she was doing something, but she was too upset so I just tried to calm her down and reassure her that the ambulance was coming – as if the ambulance was going to change the situation somehow.
As I mentioned above, this situation isn’t rare. It’s probably one per call taker per shift and while the callers are, of course, upset, it’s rare to find one who is hysterical like this. The difference, I think, was that this lady did not expect her mother to die. She kept telling me how she’d been fine earlier, she was in good health, she couldn’t be dead! Some people just block out the fact that everyone they love will inevitably die. Of course, I’m the opposite. I know that one day it’ll be me finding the lifeless shell of a loved one. This job gives me a falsely inflated impression of the likelihood of the worst happening. I see people and see what could go wrong. My elderly relatives are heart attacks and strokes waiting to happen. Old age can result in your languishing forgotten in a “don’t care home”, lying for hours in your own excrement until your legs rot away or stumbling around in a dazed state swearing at your family because you don’t even recognise them. I don’t wish that the people I love will never die. I pray they will never break their legs or have strokes or lose their minds. I hope that when they die it will be quick, painless and at the right time.
I told her I was sorry, but was I really? I was sorry she was so distressed. I was sorry for her loss. Was I sorry that her mother had died peacefully and painlessly in her sleep at a good old age? No, I wasn’t. Death is the one thing you can be certain of, and as deaths go, this is about as good as they get.