ODE TO TOM
She was obese with long, dark hair and I believe she was in her mid 50’s. I am ashamed to admit that is all I really remember about her. She had a daughter she was close with and a multitude of other family members and friends. I think there were about 13 of them there that day she died. The day before, I had spent at least 2 hours with her daughter asking her the required medical and social history questions. I remember her daughter telling me how they used drugs together. I remember my sense of sadness for this woman’s daughter and for the better life this woman never had. As I reviewed the process for the following day, I asked her if she had any special requests.
“Yeah, ” she replied. “I think I want a song played. The song ‘Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty.”
The next day arrived and as with any organ donation case, so did the feverent pace of activity and communication. I recall the palpable stress of the novice nurse who was caring for this woman. I remember the numb and stoic faces of the men in the room. I recall the confusion between some of the family members. As I prepared to gather everyone for the final huddle before moving closer to the operating room, I kept the daughter’s request tucked aside in my mind. I was fairly certain she, nor any other family member or friend, had not downloaded ‘Free Fallin’ to their phone. We rolled the comatose woman in her bed from the medical ICU to the private area outside of the operating room where the withdrawal of life support would take place. I, in the background and separate from the hospital’s medical team, patiently waited as the nurses and doctors ensured her comfort before removing her breathing tube. In addition to myself, the organ procurement organization’s family support coordinator, and the hospital medical staff there was also a hospital priest at her bedside. Needless to say there was a crowd of people. No one said a word. I was discreetly, yet busily texting updates to the surgeon, who was already scrubbed and waiting in the wings. In this case of organ donation after cardiac death (see definitions) , time is of the essence.
In this particular case, the woman would need to die within 2 hours after the removal of the breathing tube. We were 5 minutes in. Five minutes. You could hear a pin drop. You wish you knew what the outcome would be. You are amongst people who have just made one of the hardest decisions of their lives. Amongst that decision they are clinging to the hope that their loved one will be able to donate the gift of life. As we all stood there, watching and waiting, the clock ticking, it is obvious no one has control over the final outcome. Bearing witness to this most intimate time in a person’s life; the end of their life; has been a privilege I got to experience many times. The experiences were, and the memories continue to be, a reminder that we are all here in this world ‘Free Fallin.’
There was a time when I did not believe in something greater than myself. I was a complete atheist. Needless to say times have changed and I now very much believe in a greater Source out there. Call it whatever you want. But it is there.
On that particular day, as I stood there in silence with this woman’s family, I did the only thing I could think to do. I logged into iTunes on my phone and purchased ‘Free Fallin.’ It was the most memorable $1.29 I ever spent and we listened to it play over and over until the priest quietly asked me to turn it off so he could offer a prayer. And every time I hear that song, a song I loved before that experience ever came to be, I will think of this woman and her family. I will remember those long 2 hours and the disappointment that her family had as the end of her life lingered beyond the 2 hour mark. I will remember speaking with the surgeon and passing his condolences along to the family he never met. I will remember that we are all “gonna leave this world for awhile.”
RIP Tom Petty, the victims of the Vegas tragedy, and the woman who shared her final hours with me.
May we all move through this life knowing we are part of something bigger.