Last Breath by Sandra Bates

“The fat one’s no good. While she’s out, get me oxygen. In the hall. Do it now while she’s gone! The doctors don’t matter. They’re stupid. I know everything about this. I need 12. They are only giving me 6. I need 12! Get it! Do as I say. Get it now!”

Conflicted, grief-stricken, obedient.  I’ll do it again, she heaved a deep, dark, long sigh. She slowly stood up, bent over the agitated, skeleton of a body and softly uttered what he wanted to hear, “Ok, ok.Moving through the battleground, she thought, It’s like all the other times. Her heart sank; doubt grew. What should I do? It might actually hasten his departure. Death, as it is too final a word to use or even think.  If the doctors don’t… it must be wrong. I don’t have to. He thinks he knows everything. He’s so sure of himself. Too much oxygen burns the brain. Does it matter? What do I know? Isn’t he dying anyway? No, I can’t do something that would hurt him. Do my last memories of him have to be this, again? Oh well. Please him, at all cost.

I’ll get one off the wheelchair outside.” She started out the door when Nicole, the night nurse, returned with his first dose of morphine.

“Are you his wife?” the nurse asked.

“Yes, you could say that. We are divorced but I was his wife, 40 years,” she replied with a long silent history.

“His body is shutting down. Part of the process feels like suffocation. It can be very frightening,” the nurse calmly explained. “All his senses are heightened. Light, sound are better kept low. The feeling of touch can be so excited that even light touch seems unbearable.”

The wife receded as her former husband gathered his strength and sat up.

“I’ve got to be in control. It’s my life!”

“What can I do for you?” the nurse pleasantly asked.

“You’re stupid! I need oxygen! Give it to me, now!”

“We are giving you as much as is safe. I cannot increase it. I can call the Respiratory Specialist to evaluate your condition if you like?”

“Yes, get him in here. You don’t listen.”

In his white coat, the Respiratory Specialist entered the crowded, dimly lit hospital room.

“With your permission, I will assess your condition and let you know what can be done,” the doctor mechanically droned.

“Yes, yes, get on with it.”

The doctor listened to Aaron’s heart and lungs. Calmly the doctor explained, “There are two avenues for the delivery of oxygen available to you. One is the oxygen tubes at your nostrils and the other is through oxygen tubes delivered to your mouth. The nostril tubes must deliver no more than 6 psi.” The wife, with her head in her hands, remembered that premature babies were blinded from too much oxygen.

The doctor firmly stated, “I cannot and will not give 12 psi to the nostrils. I can deliver 6 psi at the mouth and 6 psi via the nostril, if you like?”

“No!” Aaron insisted, “I need 12!”

“If you are not satisfied, then I will leave because there are no other options to discuss.”  He sidled past the furniture, glanced momentarily at the wife, and left.

“They’re killing me! Call 911!”

The wife paused. She wanted to relieve him of his desperation but didn’t know what to do.

“If you won’t, give it to me!” The wife handed him the phone by his bed and Aaron dialed 911.

The wife wondered, Now, what?

The 911 dispatcher spoke, “What is the nature of the emergency you are calling about?”

Aaron yelled, “I can’t breathe!”

“Have you swallowed anything or eaten anything that may be contributing to your breathing difficulty?” the dispatcher continued.

“No. Get me someone who doesn’t ask stupid questions.”

“Where are you located?”

“In bed.”

“Where is the bed?”

“In the hospital.”

“Which hospital?”

“Coos Bay, you idiot! They’re trying to kill me!”

“OK,” the dispatcher, who knew Nicole, said politely. “I’ll call the nurse on duty.”

Nicole, still in Aaron’s room, answered her cell phone.

“This is the 911 dispatcher calling in response to a man saying that he can’t breathe and the hospital staff is trying to kill him. Do you know this man?”

“Yes, I’m in his room now.”

“Were you or any staff members trying to kill this man?”

“No.”

The 911 operator spoke to Aaron, “Since no one is trying to kill you, I’ll hang up as there is nothing more I can do for you, Sir.”

Aaron drifted off into restful, morphine sleep.

Slowly, the wife got up to leave but hesitated. She wanted to cry, but no tears came.  Afraid of revealing her intimate thoughts, afraid that she did care, even loved this man, afraid of self-betrayal, with screaming inside, she kept silent. Unanswerable questions fogged her mind. Why do I feel like this?  She had promised herself to stand her ground, to be her new self. If I care for him, does that negate the person I have become? 

Nichole spoke kindly to the exhausted wife,You might want to get some food and rest. The morphine will wear off in two or three hours.”

Opening the door to the air and light, the wife stepped out of the prison of her past. In the light, the dark, depressing sense of duty disappeared. For the first time, she stood tall. The rays streaming through the skylight reminded her of all her hard work to develop and grow in strength and self-reliance. She knew who she was. She inhaled a long, deep breath and departed. Ready for Aaron’s inevitable death, ready to compassionately face his next cycle. She lifted her head, ready to live the free, joyous, liberated person she had become.