I Saw Her Die


I don’t know why I’m not deeply bothered enough by death… …emails can come in announcing janazahs for people I’ve never heard of, Masjid announcements are made about folks back home in the old countries who have passed away, and of course the constant news reports coming in detailing scores of people losing their lives due to natural disasters, starvation, murder, war, and oppression.

I’d usually hide behind behind my utterance of “inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon” and use that as my personal consolation to distance myself- it didn’t happen to anyone I know, so I can safely detach myself emotionally from news of other people’s deaths and just offer a typical generic dua before going back to my usual business, right?

It sounds heartless and shameless to admit to something like that- in our society death is something so trivialized and diminutive that its nearly desensitized us from realizing the sheer gravity of it. But that’s blaming society for something that my own heart should be trembling about.

Allah (swt), through His immaculate wisdom and infinite mercy, made me a witness to someone’s death- He placed me only a few feet away to see with my own eyes what someone’s last moments were like, and to this very moment I can never forget what I saw that day.

I was shadowing an Intensive Care Unit physician during one of my summer hospital internships a few years ago. The ICU was busy as always, but it had a much heavier atmosphere than what I was used to in the Emergency Department. The patients here weren’t typical emergency cases- these people were in a league of disease severity far above those of the rest of the hospital. Only the most critically dire and immediately life-threatening cases were sent here to the ICU to be stabilized, so it was a rather eye-opening experience for me to see it all for the first time.

The ICU only had a few beds, but in each room there was a patient strapped up and hooked to a monstrous mechanical collection of automatic pumps, IV drips, monitors, screens, and all sorts of gadgets and machines. You couldn’t hear anything in the ICU except for the muffled shuffling of doctors and nurses, and the synchronous beeps of the EKG heart monitors.

The patients were mostly old men and women- frail, sickly, and motionless save for the slow rhythmic heaving of their chests as the intubation tubes placed down their throats pumped air directly into their lungs. It was painful seeing them in such a state- just by looking at their feeble weak bodies you could tell that they were completely at the mercy of the machines and IV drips that were sustaining their stabilized conditions. You didn’t need a medical degree to know that they were teetering on the edge of death and the next heart attack or lung failure would offer no guarantee of survival.

For the doctors it was a matter of extending life for as long as possible- death was imminent, but their job of providing stability by any means at this critical point would serve as the last defense against the patient completely submitting to their condition. The doctors and nurses were lively and talkative- for me it was a stomach-churning exhibit of human fragility near the end of our lives, but for the ICU staff it was just a typical morning.

It was during the usual ICU rounds that the physician I was shadowing introduced me to one of his patients. She was a Haitian lady; I remember her being somewhere in her late 70s, but she was one of the better stabilized patients who thankfully wasn’t intubated. She was a jolly and talkative woman, a rather fresh breath of air given the state of the rest of the ICU patients, and she only spoke Creole, which wasn’t an issue since the physician I was with was Haitian as well. I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, but she shared a few laughs with the doctor and had a bright ambiance about her that brought much needed cheer to the dreary ICU.

I asked the doctor about her after we left her room- she was a proud single mother of 10 children, most of whom grew up to take jobs as nurses, PAs, and hospital technicians right around the area. Despite her current condition, she was deeply religious and considered her disease a trial from God that she had to overcome. The doctor said she was faring much better relative to the other patients, and that her positive outlook was certainly instrumental in her determination to recover sufficiently enough to leave the ICU. I found her to be quite a remarkably strong-willed person, and I had the doctor agree to take me to meet her again the very next day.

I was running a bit late the next morning and walked into the ICU about 10 minutes after 8 AM, only to be met with a “Code Red” emergency declaration- one of the ICU patients was experiencing heart failure and every available staff member was called to assist. I rushed alongside one of the nurses, following a blaze of white coats headed for one of the patient rooms. I trailed the nurse into the familiar patient room and when I got my first glimpse of the Code Red case… …my heart sank.

It was the Hatian mother- sprawled out on her bed as her EKG went wild, screeching out a siren of beeps warning of her erratic heartbeat. I was pushed to the side as one of the doctors entered, and I pressed my back up against the wall and watched as the ICU team went quickly to work attempting to stabilize her.

The Hatian doctor barked out quick orders to everyone- he had a team of respiratory therapists take turns performing chest pumps on her as he yelled at a nearby nurse to prepare an epinephrine injection to boost her falling heart-rate. He quickly injected her and waited a moment to see if there was any effect. Nothing. Her EKG was wailing and her heart clearly wasn’t returning to normal.

He instructed the respiratory therapists to stop pumping as he charged the defibrillator. Quickly removing her gown from the way, he shouted “CLEAR!” and pressed the charges to her chest. Her entire body heaved ferociously and dropped back onto the bed. Everyone in the room glanced with bated breath at her EKG to see if it had worked.

It didn’t.

It was at that point that my throat became dry and my knees buckled. I swear to you, I remember so clearly how deeply I was gripped by tension and fear- my whole body froze and I could only look on in horror as she rapidly deteriorated right in front of me. My heart was pounding and my stomach was turning over the sight of her. She was dying- her heart was failing and she was quickly dying right in front of me.

The doctor motioned for the respiratory therapists to continue their chest pumps- with each pump her body heaved and the EKG showed an erratic spike. Another epinephrine shot was administered, this one having a stronger dosage than the last. I felt helpless watching the entire team rush about her- I was so useless, just a silent observer standing there frozen- watching her fight for her life.

Nothing was working on her, and her time was running out fast.

The doctor grabbed the defibrillator again and charged it. He yelled at the respiratory therapists to get out of the way and pressed the charges against her chest, shouting “CLEAR!” as the shock-wave passed through her, heaving her body upward again and dropping her back onto the bed. Her EKG showed so sign of stability.

I remember making dua for her at that point. She wasn’t even Muslim- I knew she wasn’t Muslim, but I didn’t want to see her die. I repeatedly made dua to Allah (swt) to save her, and I whispered it to myself while still clinging to whatever hope I had left that she’d somehow miraculously survive this.

The doctor asked the nurse to prepare another epinephrine injection. He stuck her again with the syringe as the respiratory therapists kept pumping away at her chest. Again, she showed no positive response at all to his attempts, and her time was nearly up.

I looked on in horror as the rest of the ICU staff in the room fell silent. Her EKG monitor flatlined- the long unending beep of the EKG was the only sound in the room, a morbid signal that her heart had finally given up the battle and succumbed to death.

One of the respiratory therapists was still pumping away at her chest- he was still trying in vain, despite the undeniable truth that her heart would never again beat. The doctor motioned at him to stop. “That’s enough,” he said solemnly, “I’m calling it.”

The time was 8:25 AM. In the span of just 15 minutes that Haitian mother lost her life, and I was a witness to her death.

It’s different. It’s truly different. You can watch people die in movies and TV shows, see footage of warzones or disaster-struck areas, and attend funeral proceedings, but that’s not really witnessing death. This was the first time in my life that I saw someone actually die- maybe I was too sheltered growing up, or maybe I still held on to a child-like naivete that seeing death was something I was tough enough to handle. But you truly don’t understand how scary it is until you see it happen right in front of you.

I remember slowly making my way to one of the nursing stations and sitting down. I needed time to compose myself so I could gather my thoughts on what I just saw. I don’t know how much time passed- maybe it was another 20 minutes or so, but I remember feeling like I was frozen in time. Things finally snapped back for me when I heard the ICU doors opening again.

They shuffled in slowly and silently. One by one, her children began to enter the ICU- it’s true, they were all middle-aged people, and a few of them were wearing scrubs. I didn’t want to look at their faces- I couldn’t. But the doctor was called to another part of the emergency department, and seeing me sitting in the corner, they must’ve mistaken me as one of the staff members.

One of the daughters walked up to me, and I remember tensing up when she approached. She didn’t ask me if I was a doctor, or if I was in charge of her mother’s care. Maybe she knew just by the look on my face. With tears in her eyes she asked me, “how did she go?”

I told her that her mother truly fought hard to survive, and that the ICU staff did everything they could to try and save her. I apologized to her and offered her my deepest condolences. She stayed silent, but nodded her head.

She led her siblings into her mother’s room, and despite sitting further down the hall I closed my eyes and looked away. I wish I could’ve covered my ears… but I heard their wailing. Their sobs. Their crying echoed into the hallway and one of the nurses closed the door. But you could still hear their muffled grief.

That was too much for me. It was too much. Seeing her die shook me to the core, but seeing her children react to her passing just tore at my very soul. I couldn’t be there any longer- I got up and left the ICU in a hurry and rushed to the hospital lobby to compose myself again. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. About her kids. About everything that just happened. It was a swirl of sympathy and uneasiness that penetrated my heart and just wouldn’t let go.

I remember calling my mom from the hospital lobby. Maybe she remembers this conversation better than I do, but I remember just repeating to her that I love her and asking her to forgive me. Of course she felt worried; when your eldest son calls you and just repeats in a shaky voice that he loves you, what parent wouldn’t feel that something was seriously wrong- she told me she loved me too, and kept asking me to tell her what was wrong and to explain what happened.

I told her what I saw, what I experienced, what I heard, and what it did to me. It felt better to tell her everything. It always does. And I just remember her assuaging me and rebuilding my resolve to focus myself and place my faith in Allah (swt). You really can’t ask for more love and understanding than that. Mommy, I love you- I always have and always will.

To this day, I haven’t forgotten that Haitian mother and her kids. It still bothers me, and even as I write this I only need to close my eyes to see her again on that ICU bed. I didn’t know her at all- I saw her talking to the doctor for 3 or 4 minutes, and I knew nothing about her aside from the few words the doctor shared with me about her background. But her death still shook me so badly that I can’t forget it.

Even now, I can’t help but think to myself- what if that was my mom in that bed, strapped to those wires and machines? What if that was her final battle to survive her disease- and that I would be the one shuffling into the ICU moments later to find that one of my doors to Jannah would forever be sealed? It hurts to think that- it hurts so much, and I’d never want that to happen- but I’m sure the children of that Haitian mother felt the same about her before she left them. May Allah (swt) protect and preserve my mother and have mercy upon her.

It takes a profession like medicine to show you just how fragile and precious our health and our life is, and it takes a deen like Islam to show you how best to appreciate a gift like that by always being grateful. Every single life on this Earth is precious- every heartbeat and breath of air a priceless blessing, and every morning that we rise is a testament to Allah (swt)’s mercy.

When you receive that e-mail announcing some stranger’s janazah, or when that announcement is made that so-and-so has passed away, or when you read or hear that droves of nameless faceless people have lost their lives- don’t turn your head away, rationalize your thoughts, and emotionally detach yourself from it. We’re Muslims, and every death that we hear of or know of is a chilling reminder to us, so don’t cower and hide- give due respect and acknowledgment to it.

When we say “inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon,” we should say it with sincerity and genuine passion- we owe it to the one whom Allah (swt) has taken back… …and truthfully, that’s how I would want “inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon” to be said by others when that time finally strikes for me.

كُلُّ نَفْسٍ ذَائِقَةُ الْمَوْتِ ۗ وَنَبْلُوكُمْ بِالشَّرِّ وَالْخَيْرِ فِتْنَةً ۖ وَإِلَيْنَا تُرْجَعُونَ

“Every soul shall have a taste of death: and We test you by evil and by good by way of trial: to Us you must return.” [Surah Al-Anbiyaa: 35]