A few years ago, a patient requested a visit with me.
During our visit, I learned he was nearly 60 with a
fixable heart problem.
His story was a lonely one. He hadn’t made many
friends in life, and no one was visiting him. He’d
worked odd jobs, but derived little purpose from
During our visit, he said his only surviving brother
had invited him to live in another state with him.
“But,” the man said, “I don’t think he meant it much.”
Despite that small disclosure, the rest of the
conversation was like pulling teeth. Eventually, we
came to routine questions, and I asked him if he had
an Advance Healthcare Directive, commonly known
as a living will.
An Advance Healthcare Directive is a document that
tells the doctors what you want done if you become
incapacitated. Without the directive, doctors are
obligated to do everything possible to save your
life, even if those life-saving measures only delay
“No,” he said, “but I guess I should get one. I don’t
want to live on a machine.”
With this assurance that he was ready to die, I
prayerfully concluded our visit and put in the
request for a social worker to bring him a directive.
Twenty minutes later, I was visiting another patient
when I heard it.
“Code Blue, 4 East. Code Blue, 4 East.”
What were the odds it was him? I asked myself.
Surely not. He wasn’t anywhere near death. It had to
be a coincidence.
Nevertheless, I quickly finished my visit and walked
to 4 East.
When the unit secretary told me it was the man’s
room, I rushed to talk to the nursing supervisor
standing in the doorway.
She and I helplessly stood watching this typical
hospital procedure. It often involves a respiratory
therapist straddling the patient with palms flat on
the patient’s chest, compressing the chest cavity
until a rhythmic pulse shows up. Ribs can crack.
The body often expels waste. All of this is done
repetitively with amazing speed.
From the doorway, I heard questions that often
precede the ending of CPR.
“How long?” a doctor asked.
“Twenty minutes,” came the reply.
“Does he have a directive?” called another.
“No,” said the nursing supervisor.
As they slowed their fervent pace, I told the nursing
supervisor of my earlier conversation with the man.
“I don’t think he wanted all of this,” I said voicing my
Like a Navy chief repeating the captain’s orders, the
supervisor shot back to the staff, “The chaplain says
the man wouldn’t want this.”
I shuddered at the sound of my assessment being
repeated with such finality. I didn’t know him very
well — I’d only had one conversation with him —
yet I was the person in the room with the best
information. There definitely was something wrong
with this picture.
The attending staff gave a few understanding nods,
and the doctor seemed ready to end CPR.
“We have a rhythm,” shouted the respiratory
With that, the man rejoined the living.
The incident gave me pause. Had our staff given him
back a life he didn’t want?
In hopes of getting some answers, I returned the
next day and discovered the incident had given him
a new perspective. It is a perspective few of us get.
He had peered over the edge of life and decided he
didn’t like the alternative. More importantly,
perhaps, he’d decided that he was the best one to
make his future life (and death) decisions, not the
chaplain or the hospital staff.
Three days later, he went home with a pacemaker
and medication. I don’t know if he found a new will
to live, but I know he left with a living will.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an
Air National Guard chaplain. Write
[email protected] or visit thechaplain.net.