“Are you a family member?” the ICU nurse asked, glaring at me as I was approaching Room 7 where Peter, my nursing home resident, lay on a bed, hooked to multiple life-prolonging machines. I turned around to face the nurse.
“I’m the social worker from the nursing home where Peter lives.” I drew closer to her, and tapped my chest, whispering. “He has no family; we are his family.”
The nurse frowned. “Does he have any friends, or a DPOA?”
“The only friends he has are in the nursing home. No, he doesn’t have a Durable Power Of Attorney.”
My memories went back to recent days when I last saw Peter wheeling himself in the hall, heading to the dining room, where he normally used to enjoy his meals and conversions with his tablemates.
At age 61, and once homeless, Peter had found a home and a circle of friends in the nursing home. It had been two years since he came to our facility from the hospital.
Although Peter had multiple health challenges, he was doing fairly well, and no one expected that a heart failure would lead him to be on a ventilator. Peter was reluctant to sign a Durable Power of Attorney as he believed he had many years ahead of him before he would have to cross that road. But he at least did have a Living Will.
“He does have a Living Will. Do you need a copy?”
“I will let you talk with the social worker about that,” the nurse seemed busy and stressed. “Let me page her for you.” As she reached for a telephone I headed to Peter’s room.
Peter was unresponsive. I felt almost dizzy trying to identify the multiple tubes attached to his body: the ventilator breathing tube, NG tube, IVs, Foley catheter...and multiple monitoring devices. He had been in the ICU for almost a week, and I knew deep in my heart Peter was not going to get better. Not based on what I was seeing before me.
I met with the ICU social worker and discussed briefly Peter’s history and his end-of-life wishes. I had my office send the hospital a copy of his Living Will and I was assured they would grant it at the medical team’s discretion. In other words, once the attending physician determined that there could be no recovery from his condition and his death was imminent, all life-prolonging measures would be stopped.
As I returned to my office, I went through Peter’s file. I reread his medical records, the different disciplines notes. I went to his room, and felt a void. Then I pulled a copy of his Living Will. He had executed it a year ago. He had clearly signed that he didn’t want to be on a ventilator, or have a feeding tube, or any life-prolonging measures if he was terminally-ill. Then something suddenly struck me.
Peter was an organ donor!
I called the hospital social worker, and made sure she was aware of this.
A couple of days later, I received a phone call from my co-worker Lori:
“I came to see Peter... he’s taken off the vent two hours ago!”
I rushed to the hospital. I met Lori at the hospital lobby, she had tears in her eyes. We ran to the elevator, but by the time we made our way to the ICU, visitors were not allowed as it was past the visiting hours. Lori called the ICU nurse and begged her to let us in. The nurse was kind and allowed us see Peter.
Peter looked more deteriorated by now, but I was pleased to see him free of all the tubing and machinery. He was still unresponsive. He gasped for air. Every breath was a struggle. We knew he wouldn’t make it that night. I held his warm hand. I told him how much we loved him and how wonderful it was to have him in our “nursing home family.” We said our prayers and good-byes...
That night, I got a phone call from a nurse from the nursing home.
“The hospital chaplain called to let us know Peter expired at 21:30.”
My heart sunk. But I was somehow relieved to know Peter was no longer suffering.
The next day, residents and staff talked about Peter’s passing.
“Peter is a hero,” I said in front of a group of my co-workers. “He was an organ donor, and at this moment, as Peter is in heaven, other peoples’ lives are being saved because of his good heart.”
Peter, a once homeless man, became a friend to many in the nursing home, and a hero to others that may have been saved by his decision to be an organ donor.
“That's Peter’s true legacy,” I said, fighting tears back.
I think of Peter today, and find him to be the inspiration which gave me courage to make a decision that’s been lingering in my mind for years.
I am now an organ donor.
“Without the organ donor, there is no story, no hope, no transplant. But when there is an organ donor, life springs from death, sorrow turns to hope and a terrible loss becomes a gift. – Reprinted from the 2009 UNOS Annual Report”