Big Man Down and the Procession of Life

There was a man in New Haven known for his size, his vast appetite for food and drink, his violence, and he feared not man nor God.  He stood six-foot-six and weighed an estimated 400 pounds.

One night he angered his girlfriend.  She revved his car, a sizable 1970’s style sedan, and threatened to run him down on Howard Avenue.  He stood in the middle of the street and dared her to do it.  She made one pass and swerved at the last minute narrowly missing him.  She turned the car around, and he laughed, daring her to try again.  This time she didn’t swerve and she didn’t miss.  After the impact he was dragged another full city block before falling free in front of the ER entrance at Yale-New Haven Hospital.  An ambulance still had to be called because none of the hospital personnel who rushed out could lift his massive frame onto a hospital gurney.

Once in the emergency room, he proved equally difficult to evaluate.  He was too large for the CT scanner, and X-Rays penetrated his thick flesh poorly leaving blurry images and much guessing about internal injuries. Cervical spine x-rays had been able to penetrate only as low as C-3.  Normally all seven cervical vertebrae can be seen on x-ray, or in very large individuals perhaps only five or six, but in his case the lower four vertebrae were completely obscured by his massive shoulders.

One thing that was clear: he was paralyzed from the waist down from a fracture at the lower thoracic/upper lumbar spine.  Surgery was scheduled for the following day.

The operation was long and difficult with much blood loss. Whether it was successful or not became quickly irrelevant when he woke in the recovery room now paralyzed from the neck  down.  Further efforts at x-rays of his cervical spine determined that he had a fracture at C-4 and now a new cervical spinal cord injury.  Unable to breathe adequately, he was left on the respirator, an endotracheal tube placed during surgery remaining as his airway.

Up until this point I had little involvement in his care.  My primary responsibilities were in the research labs, and I covered the clinical patients only one night per week and one weekend per month.  But when Saturday rolled around, he was still intubated, and dependent on the respirator in the Neuro ICU, and I was the sole resident on-call for the weekend.

On Saturday morning rounds, the staff neurosurgeon, also covering for the weekend, told me the patient needed a tracheostomy and we should do it that day.  I had done enough tracheostomies–the procedure itself didn’t intimidate me–but this case frightened me.  I argued that the procedure would be difficult, and ENT consult should be considered, and it wasn’t an emergency.  The procedure could be done the following week when plenty of back-up help was available, perhaps even in the OR where adequate light and and equipment would be available.

The surgeon would have none of it.  Back then, neurosurgeons did tracheostomies on their own patients.  To consult ENT or another surgical service would a sign of weakness, and neurosurgeons never admit to weakness.  Why mess up a busy operating room schedule with an annoying procedure like a tracheostomy that could be done off hours in the ICU?

I argued my other responsibilities to the seventy-odd patients under my care.  He simply said to call him as soon as my routine work was done.

My routine work was not done until six PM.  I called the staff physician, hoping the late hour would put him off, but he remained undeterred.  He showed up a the NICU at eight PM determined to help.

A trachea is normally immediately beneath the surface of the skin at the throat, often less than a quarter inch from the surface.  In this patient the trachea was a good four inches deep in the neck.  The standard retractors and indeed the tracheostomy tubes themselves were too small.  The light was poor, and we struggled for two hours over a procedure that normally takes thirty minutes.

At last he had an airway in the trachea.  I sutured it in place and tied it around his neck for good measure.  The staff physician went home, and after fielding the calls and tasks that had accumulated during the time I was involved in the procedure, I went to bed.

At two AM, the phone rang.  The patient had coughed out his airway and was now in respiratory distress.  I ran to the NICU and tried to replace the tube, but after the recent procedure the path from the skin to the trachea is no longer easy.  All the recently dissected tissue planes provide false passageways even in normal individuals.

I struggled to find the trachea and a tube large enough to reach it, but working alone and with poor light, I was frustrated and unsuccessful.  His breathing became more and more labored.  I called the resuscitation team, but they too were unable to re-intube him in the conventional manner.  His heart rate slowed and he lost consciousness as I struggled to find his trachea.

Then he died.

It’s a great thing to do a good tracheostomy.  Lives are saved in hospitals (and sometimes restaurants) frequently.  But sometimes it doesn’t work.  It’s been over forty years.  I stood between the big man and his death, and I failed.

I didn’t kill him exactly.  His girlfriend in her fury bore the legal responsibility.  Alcohol intoxication, lust, anger, and hubris (standing in front of a speeding car twice!) had a lot to do with it.  And I was only the last person in a line of medical providers who failed to stand between him and the hereafter, and between the girlfriend and a murder charge.

There is a poignant story in the Luke 7:11-16 in which Jesus and his followers are entering the town of Nain just as a funeral procession meets them on the road.  The dead man is the only son of a widow. Jesus, against all common sense and against the Jewish tradition that to touch the dead that renders one ritually unclean, stops the procession, touches the body, and raises the young man to life.

It’s an easy story to slide over.  Jesus was healing people all the time; now he stepped up the game and healed a dead kid, a widow’s son no less.

And it is all of that.

But Jeff Hoy in his Words of Faith (Stopping the Procession. Words of Faith.5-11-18.Dr.Jeffrey D. Hoy © 2018 draws attention to the metaphor.  Normal life in the world is a procession toward death.  It’s where we’re all headed.  We fear it, we avoid thinking about it–we don’t touch it.

We handle our despair in different ways.  Some of us party–eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.  Some of us exercise, diet, take vitamins, avoid germs, obsess about safety, putting off for today the looming disaster of our end.  Some of us become religious, earning our place in heaven so we don’t have to worry about our end on earth.

Some of us, for example, me, learn about medicine and how to cheat disease and death, and, as we win daily battles, we hold onto the illusion that we will win the war.  But sooner or later, we meet the procession of death.

Backed by 2500 years of medical tradition, a 500 year history of surgery, an armamentarium of drugs and surgical procedures, my medical procession is powerful against impending death.  I put out my hand, I touch the corpse, the boy rises, the procession stops.

Sometimes.  This time I put up my hand, I touched the corpse, and the procession rolled over me.

Because I’m not Jesus.

In reality, the death procession never stops.  The medical procession can only slow it down.  The death procession only stops when the people weeping and wailing and those carrying the coffin stop believing in chaos and death and start believing in purpose and life.  Believe you are a child of God, believe you are loved, believe you are made for a purpose, believe that when your body dies you will exist on a new plane of experience–even when all that belief is beyond your intellect and your sensory experience.  Then the procession stops.  Then you can turn around and join the procession of life.  You can walk with Jesus.

The death of the big man with the failed tracheostomy is but one of many experiences that haunt me after forty years in medicine.  The sense of failure is pretty big when someone dies and you feel like you could have, should have, done something better to prevent that death.  It is easy to slip into despair camouflaged as a supposed “realism,” which is only cynicism after all.  One learns to go on, live in the moment, do the good one can do, and let the rest go.  It’s possible to live like that.

But if I want to live with joy instead of despair, I have to turn around and join the procession of life.  I have to walk with Jesus.