Michael Attas: Another example of the gift of life's tenuous grip

Waco Tribune-Herald (TX) - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Author: MICHAEL ATTAS Guest columnist


I am always astounded at the fragility of life — how suddenly we move from what one writer called the Kingdom of Living to the Kingdom of Dying.

It can swoop in without warning and flip our world inside out.

Chronic diseases, though often insidious, at least give patients and families time to process, question, make decisions, and get their hearts around difficult issues.

But sudden tragedies are almost incomprehensible.

They do not give us time to prepare and, as a result, there is a morass of confusion, terror, heartbreak, anger, and a devastating sense of helplessness.

These emotions play out with more intensity in the emergency room than anywhere else I know.

Last week, I was on a skiing vacation with six friends. Everyone had been laughing and enjoying the brilliant Colorado air and snow. Issues in our daily lives seemed remote.

As we moved down the mountain, one lady simply collapsed.

Initially, we thought it was a ski injury. But within seconds, it was obvious a catastrophe had occurred.

She was without a pulse and unconscious. The ski patrol arrived within seconds and tried to resuscitate her.

She was taken to a local hospital, where I became another person in a strange emergency department waiting on a loved one in crisis.

I was out of my element. I was used to being on the other side of the divide.

We held each other. We prayed. We wept. We questioned and we expressed our fears.

We were told by a very caring physician two hours later that our friend had suffered a brain aneurysm.

She was flown to the medical school in Denver where, after 48 hours on life support, she was declared dead.

Her organs were donated and her family prepared for the journey back to Texas for a funeral that was not a part of anyone’s wildest imagination four days earlier.

We all moved from the Kingdom of Living to the Kingdom of Dying. It is a totally helpless, terrifying and emotionally devastating journey.

I experienced it from a side that I am not used to.

I am used to working for hours to save lives on patients I do not know. I am used to searching for difficult words to say to people who are in shock and, unfortunately, I am used to the wrenching pain of loss in those situations even when the faces are new.

But I was not used to going through that from a patient’s perspective. I had to shift roles from that of a physician to that of a friend and loved one.

I had the same questions as everyone else. What happened? How can this be? Is there any hope? What should we do?

We hear these questions thousands of times in our lives as physicians, yet to ask them places us directly in the trenches of pain, death and loss.

I do not clearly remember what I said, either medically or in the prayers that we shared.

It is still a blur, a surreal scene that feels like an eternity ago, even though only days have passed.

What I do remember clearly is the importance of “presence,” what one writer has said is the holiest thing we can do for one another in times of suffering.

Ultimately, it may not be as important what is said or what is done, but to be willing to go through the pain with each other.

I sensed that ultimate caring in the eyes of the physician who came to ask the medical questions and give us the tragic news later.

He was not immune to the pain, but he focused intensely on his duties.

We all realize that life is tenuous. It is a daily gift. It can change in a heartbeat.

In medicine, as much as we would like to think we can fix every thing, we acknowledge at times our ultimate helplessness.

And while that insight is painful, it may be one of the most important things we need to know.

Yes, we must focus on our work, actions and words. But at the end of the day, what may be most important is that we are there.

Michael Attas is a local doctor, a medical humanities professor and an Episcopal priest. Email him at Michael_Attas@baylor.edu.

Section: accesswaco
Record Number: 01252011-wac-attas25
(c) 2011 Robinson Media Co. LLC - Waco Tribune-Herald

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Michael Attas: Another example of the gift of life's tenuous grip

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