I will never forget

September 11th, 2001, dawned in the bone marrow transplant unit a quiet morning just like most. Somehow the children I cared for, deathly ill, rarely coded around shift change, perhaps sensing the need to hang on until one nurse could report off to another. I was staying over from my 12 hour night shift until 11 a.m., an extra four hours that took me from the energy of the darkness I lived on as a night nurse into the bluster and raging bright light of day shift, where I was barely keeping my head above water and my patient's, too, at that. My patient was a foe of mine long prior to transplant, her and I playing on battling teams on the top tier of our summer softball leagues. She remembered me immediately when I had walked into her room a few days before. We made up and had some laughs about how seriously we used to take softball, and she swung her one leg out of bed to get into the chair, pivoting effortlessly and leaving me, still athletic and whole, without words and only a stare which she met with the bravery and boldness I had admired on the softball diamond six years before.

 


At 10 a.m. that fateful morning of September 11th, I began to hear rumbles that something was amiss in the broader world. I had no time to waste with the broader world though, as my friend and patient coded, quit breathing suddenly, heart nearing complete failure, and I began compressions on her chest while the charge nurse and another from the desk stormed in with the red crash cart while the overhead speakers blared, "Code Blue, 4th Floor, Unit A, Room 406." I was ordered to leave after an hour of the code, which continued into the afternoon and left my patient barely hanging on while a ventilator breathed for her and she was placed in a medical coma.

I returned home feeling kind of at a loss. The streets were oddly quiet for 11:30 and all the world seemed like that code I'd just left had set the world on it's ear. I left the radio silent as I sobbed, not knowing whether she would pull through. I remembered the Grateful Dead blaring, per her mother's staunch request, and I hummed and sobbed and wondered when in the world God would quit letting people, lovely people, amazing people die like this, in horrible pain induced by horrible medical interventions and even more horrible options to save them, keep them going, to that magical 100 day mark where they became a "survivor" on the transplant lists regardless of whether or not they could breathe, move, speak, or open their eyes.

I entered the kitchen quietly as my roommate was still recovering from her double shift as well, sleeping as long as she could before she started again at 3 p.m. Normally, I went straight to bed, but I just couldn't. I grabbed a Leinie's from the fridge and sat down on our threadbare second hand couch. I clicked on the TV hoping to catch a morning game show. We only got 3 channels with the large antenna that the last resident of my house had left affixed to the chimney. A building was smoldering on the first, so I clicked to the 2nd, then the 3rd. Every channel showed the same thing. It took a few minutes for the tragedy of the century to break through my personal tragedy of that morning. Now I was sobbing out of control. I remember calling my brothers, all 3 of them threatening to enlist before the damage was even over. My mother begged them to wait. I watched people jump out of the buildings from stories hundreds of feet in the air and explode on the sidewalk when they hit. Exploding bodies. It didn't seem possible that I could be seeing this on TV just as I had lived it this morning with my friend, whose body was swelling faster than her skin could stretch, great lumps growing off limbs and fluid seeping out and running off the CPR board onto her sheets in yellow rivers.
"Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." ~ President H.W. Bush, 9/11, evening address to the nation

In life in a microcosm of one, as in a macrocosm of an entire nation, these words rang so true. I prayed - begged - along with my patient's family, all of whom I had known from a distance - for my friend's life, while I suctioned her, changed the yellow sheets, bathed her wounds in potions and lotions, ran a fan and kept spraying M9 air neutralizer to keep the smell of dying flesh at bay. We were in our own war, and the stakes were just as high. On September 13th, the family asked to have her medications stopped for a few hours so they could ask their daughter, who was technically an adult, what her wishes were. She had coded so suddenly on the 11th that they hadn't gotten that far in their plan. They were still living in justice, living in freedom, trying to hold on as long as possible to hope, when their world disintegrated beneath their feet just like the floors of the Twin Towers. She was able to squeeze her mother and then her father's hand while tears rolled down everyone's cheeks. Yes, she wanted to be let go. Medication drips that were keeping her alive were stopped, the ventilator set at minimum settings. More pain medications were ordered to keep her peaceful and adrift from the body that was bleeding out beneath her. Dave Matthews Band and Louis Armstrong, Allison Krauss and Rufus Wainwright competed for eclectic honors from a CD player. Candles lent a warm light to the scene. Her favorite quilt covered her now, a homey touch instead of the white institutional bath blankets that were underneath, soaking up fluid. Her family circled the bed. She softly and sweetly passed just 2 days after she coded. I know she walked straight into the arms of Jesus.

The wailing began, and I sat on a stool, my arms around her mother, wishing I could hug the whole world.

September 11th has passed ten times since. I'm sure it is still the saddest day of the year for her parents, her brothers, her sister. Ten years now without her sunshine. But for me, the day finally brought joy last year, when I prayed all day and night for my sister-in-law, who had grown identical twin girls with life-threatening twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome for 32 whole weeks in her short frame. They were born September 11th, tiny, but kicking and breathing and beautiful. They spent weeks in the NICU but never needed help breathing. It was our small family miracle that makes September 11th a day of joy in the midst of a country mourning.



I will never forget my friend. I will never forget what our country lost that fateful day in 2001. And I hope to always say "Happy birthday!" to two of the sweetest nieces I could possibly have.