I was just reading this news story about a young Detroit woman who had been declared dead at a hospital but was subsequently found at the funeral home to be still alive, shockingly just before she would have been embalmed.

Now, what happened to that young lady is horrible, terrible, and I’m so glad she is still alive, as of this writing. But having something similar happen at a hospital where I was working many, many years ago, there can also be a lighthearted, yet still tragic, side.

To Wit

I was working part-time as an RN in the critical care unit of a small Connecticut hospital when a code blue was sounded from the medical step-down unit next door. Code blues then, as often now, signal that a patient has become suddenly ill and needs the immediate attention of a team of cardiorespiratory professionals. One or more ICU nurses typically attended codes back then, and this particular time I went.

I worked with the physicians, nurses, and other team members in a crowded semi-private room to resuscitate an older woman whose heart and breathing had stopped. At one point I and another nurse wheeled the woman’s roommate, in her bed, into the hallway, to shield her somewhat from the frantic goings-on in the room. I explained that we were doing everything we could to save the woman. The roommate nodded understanding, but she was obviously concerned.

Back in the room we worked and worked, but to no avail. We couldn’t get her heart restarted, and she had no blood pressure. Her own physician ran the code; she happened to have been on the unit at the time. She and I had known each other several years at that point, so I wasn’t surprised when changes in her voice and countenance signaled that she was transitioning from an intense, let’s-do-this approach to one of acceptance of the reality of a life ending. She looked at me with a I think I should call it kind of look, and I responded with a look of Yes, it’s time.

“Okay, that’s enough,” she said. She declared the time of death and went to call the family. The rest of us began the post-code cleanup process, but it was dinnertime and trays needed to be passed around to the other patients. The unit’s head nurse told her staff to pass trays quickly and then finish the cleanup. I headed back to ICU, but on the way I explained to the roommate what had happened. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, “she seemed nice.”

This Is Where It Gets Interesting

I had been back in ICU for probably ten minutes, when I decided to help the step-down unit and start cleaning up in the code room. We were slow in the unit, so why not? What I saw at the bedside compelled me to alert the physician; let’s call her Maggie. (I called nearly all physicians by their first name once I got to know them.)

“Maggie, It’s Andy. I’m with the patient we just coded, and I think you should get up here. She’s still breathing.”

“I’m sure she’s not breathing, Andy, it’s probably just agonal respirations.” Now, I had been around the block a few times, and I knew agonal respirations from normal respirations. Agonal respirations are quasi-breaths that can occur after death. They tend to be abrupt, almost a gasp, and are the result of a reflex of the brainstem in the last biochemical throes of life. These were most certainly not agonal respirations.

“I don’t think so, Maggie. Her respiratory rate is 24…”

“What?”

“… and her pulse is 90.”

“But I already called the family!”

“Uhhh.”

“I called the funeral home too.” Maggie was becoming distraught. “They’re on their way over now! What am I supposed to tell them?”

“Well, I gotta tell ya, I don’t think they’ll take her like this.”

I had already put the woman back on oxygen by this point and had assessed her vital signs, and Maggie arrived moments later. She stood on the other side of the bed from me, and we both looked down at the lady, whose color had perked up and who continued to breathe pretty well for someone who had been pronounced dead not long ago.

I said, “I think we need to get her back into the unit.”

“Yes, I guess so.”

With that we wheeled the “dead” woman out the door and down the hall past her roommate, whose eyes swelled open in stunned disbelief. I could almost hear her stammer out the words, “But, but, you said…”

Unfortunately the woman died about two days later, her body too weak to continue its miracle journey. She never regained consciousness. When she finally — and for real — passed away, poor Maggie had to call the family and the funeral home again.

What were the first words out of the mouth of the family member and the mortician who received those calls?

Right.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Maggie told them, “I’m sure.”

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