Alone With A Dead Man  

keithcancook 60M
10710 posts
6/11/2005 2:05 pm
Alone With A Dead Man

When I was 19 I stayed in the mountains for a summer term at college. I got a job as an orderly at a small hospital working 3rd shift part time. It was an eye opening experience for me as I was exposed to various forms of human suffering and also the means to lessen that suffering.

The first week I was there, I was told to go to a floor that I had not been to yet. The guy who was training me took me to a room and there on the bed lay a dead man. He was lying on his back with his mouth wide open, sightless eyes staring at the ceiling. I asked what had happened to him and was told that he was an alchoholic who had succumbed to schirrosis of the liver. He had expired only minutes before.

Just then my trainer was paged and he told me to wait for him until he returned, then we would "fix" him. He left, and I was in the room alone with the dead man. I did not even know his name. I was not comfortable with this at all, but not wanting to make an issue of it I sat down near the bed and waited.

In the silence of that room I sat there and pondered the end of life, and I vowed to myself that I would try not to drink so much as I had been in recent months so I would not end up like the man lying before me.

Suddenly, along with my thoughts, the silence was broken. The dead man began making noises. My eyes got big and round and my heart started racing as it seemed to me that the man was gasping! Warily I got up and approached the bed. He did not appear to be breathing, but he sure was making all manner of croaks and popping sounds.

To say I was freaking out would be an understatement. I'm thinking that this guy wasn't all the way dead, maybe he was almost dead but something was still alive inside. I thought I should run for a nurse or a doctor or something. Or maybe just run out the front door and not look back.

At this juncture the orderly who was training me returned. Excitedly I told him what I had seen, that this guy wasn't dead, and I asked if I should call the nurse. Much to my chagrin the trainer guy just burst out laughing. When he calmed down enough (it sure seemed disrespectful to me to laugh like that over the newly dead), he told me that the sounds I was hearing were the gasses escaping from the body through the mouth and nose.

Then, under his guidance, we "fixed" him. We pulled the sheet off of his body and standing on either side of the bed I assisted him in straightening out his limbs and we crossed his arms on top of his chest. I will never forget lifting that limp dead arm, without resistance, yet with a weight that seemed heavier than it ought to. We gathered the dead man's personal items together and left the room at last. His next journey was in the care of the funeral home who were sending a hearse to carry away the body.

In all the intervening years I have never seen another dead human being. I must be leading a lucky, but sheltered life. I had just missed being drafted to Vietnam, and am now too old for other wars where death is so common that the sight of it does not even generate emotion. Or so I have been told by my veteren friends who did go to war and saw death on a wide scale.

The inescapable fact of life is that it does end. One day perhaps someone will "fix" me and maybe even laugh over my lifeless body. It matters little, as death is the great equalizer no matter our station when once we walked upon the earth.

Puurple_Passions 46M/39F
140 posts
6/11/2005 3:12 pm

Wow!! What an eye opening experience! A very well written entry! You had me hooked! Your thought is the last paragraph are very touching and thought provoking!! I like the way you write!
~passions~ (The F of the C)

bella_ 47F
4030 posts
6/11/2005 3:32 pm

These things have honestly always freaked me out. I don't want to know anything after I am gone. I just hope they make me look pretty, smell good. I pray i will have had a fresh manicure and pedicure. I will leave a pretty outfit ready in my "death" box. The Mausoleum is the place for me....i have it all figured out..I just don't want to know anything...blaaaa...creepy!

rm_txrose4uNTX 57F
3289 posts
6/11/2005 4:26 pm

Yep, an experience with a dead man is an eye opening experience. When I discovered my Kevin sitting up against the wall in the living room under the telephone on the pass through bar to the kitchen, I freaked out. His feet were blackened...he was white as a ghost...and with what appeared to have been coffee grounds on his chest (later to be discovered that this was blood).... I called 911 all freaking out (surely this is the first time that they had received such a call)...then while waiting for the paramedics to get there (which seemed like hours but was actually only a minute or two because the firehouse was just down and across from where I lived), I called my Mom and Dad....

We had to wait for the JP (who I knew)...then for the funeral home folks to come take him to the coroner's office in Harris County (Montgomery County didn't have one) after the JP finally pronounced him dead.

My pastor and a Stephen's Minister came to our apartment and waiting with me through the 6 hour process. I went home with one of my best friends from Church and went into work the next day to announce to them what had happened, as well as wait for my Mom coming up from San Antonio to go back into the apartment and walk through the whole process of him being cremated (his wishes), arranging the memorial service, and more.... Thank God for Moms!!!

It was an eye opening experience. Although I had been accustomed to funerals at this point in time through the deceasing of my grandparents, none were such a harrowing experience b/c I wasn't the one to have found them dead.

My Dad is a doctor. I still don't understand how he can deal with death on a more regular basis than I have had to.....

Good posting, keith.....

rm_BigDnLady 43M/40F
1140 posts
6/11/2005 5:49 pm

keithcancook this was an amazingly written post!! I could tell that it really affected you in some way! I have never seen a body other than at a funeral. But have heard of my Uncle who is dear to me, and was blinded by a mine in vietnam, speak of things from the war, and am still amazed. You just keep surprising us keith!! Keep it up!!


rm_jayR63 59F
1884 posts
6/11/2005 6:27 pm

Death is indeed a fact of life.
A thought provoking subject with numerous avenues of exploration.

You might be interested in a book I'm currently reading called "Stiff -The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" by Mary Roach.

More on this later from a unique POV.

rm_jayR63 59F
1884 posts
6/11/2005 6:30 pm

BTW, I spent fifteen years alone with a dead man.
Gasses escaped from him quite often.

keithcancook 60M
17718 posts
6/11/2005 8:28 pm

LMAO jayR! You are surely slaying me with that sarcasm of yours.

rm_txrose4uNTX 57F
3289 posts
6/11/2005 10:30 pm

candy69sosweet - Oh, yeah.. much better now. Just something that one never will be able to forget...the first true encounter with a dead man.....

He died 11/11/02....It is amazing how time heals the wounds....even if the images don't go away.



6/11/2005 10:32 pm

WOW I mean WOW , You astound me with your writing sometime my Buddy, ummm seems that mood is kinda taking it`s turn around here hmmm
This got to be your best serious post yet.

Love ya bud

rm_indophilist 36M

6/11/2005 11:41 pm

I used to hang out with a friend who was an intern at a chiropractic college and I would see quite a few cadavers.
Though not quite the same as viewing a body that has recently died,
they would still put the zap on my head. Good (sobering) post.

obedientsub2005 48F
61 posts
6/12/2005 4:38 am

You know, the first time I saw a dead human was my first day in medical school, in gross anatomy. Somehow the detached eerie feeling of being in the basement of the medical center combined with the flickering fluorescent lights along with the overwhelming smell of formaldehyde burned the experience into my head long before the body was pulleyed up out of the fluid. What was most bizarre is that these people who had donated their bodies so we could learn, we total hacks who had just been at college parties drinking not long before... were so... normal...

All we had about these 100 people that were to become our first patients were how old they were, and what they had died from... the saddest were the young ones who had died of cancer... they definitely elicited the most discomfort from all of us...

Over the next 4 months we would dissect each part, guided by our professor and a fourth year medical student who had already "matched" into a surgical residency, and just wanted extra experience before the hell of the wards began...

I would love to say that we respected the bodies as we should have every step of the way, but during the hundreds of hours we spent learning every nerve, every vein, every muscle, every bony prominence... we began to be detached... I think more from sheer discomfort at the fact that we all would end up here, one way or another... and after a while we lost the feeling that these were actually human beings, each with their own story, their own heartbreaks... even I, who had always thought there was no way to be detached... made the same jokes, laughed, and behaved in a way that makes me ashamed today.

We thought it was very weird that our "Pedagogue"... the fourth year student assigned to us as our TA... instinctively reached out when he was introducing us to our first cadaver... an 88 year old tiny woman... and held her hand the entire time... We said, "hey, you are holding her hand..." He looked down, and said that is what he does with all of his patients... and we should view this as our first patient...

I didn't get it then, but I got it later... and realized that in order to be a decent physician, I would have to be a good person, and make sure I did not wall myself off from the feelings and experiences of my patients as I did my first patient in the cadaveric lab...

So now, I see patients' dead bodies on a fairly regular basis... and I now instinctively reach out to hold their hands.


cajunpet 70M
1185 posts
6/12/2005 7:50 am

Great post Keith.

I saw my pastor's wife die before my eyes.

My pastor and his wife never had any children, but they had many children and grandchildren from all churches the established. My family and I was very close to them and we were one their children my children were their special grandbabies.

My Pappy die in the bathroom brushing his teeth. Granny heard him fall from the kitchen, and she found him on the floor, not breathing. He had died for a massive heart attack. Granny had cancer of the the bladder before Pappy passed away. Granny did not want to die in a hospital, so several of my friends, my wife and I, took turns staying with her all the time. Toward the end of her life, she was in terrible pain in her legs and feet. I would massage her feet and calves, and could feel the muscles in her legs and feet get stiffer each day, until they were like solid stone.

My family and I was there when she passed away, and it was a very difficult time seeing her die. But we were happy to see her go to heaven, where she would not longer feel anymore pain.

I really miss them greatly, but I will rejoin them in heaven one day, with the rest of my family.

Keep On Blogging!!!! Have a great day.

mnfun952 102M

6/12/2005 12:47 pm

Among the many jobs I had to put myself through college - I was a nursing assistant at the University Hospital. I know that feeling of being in a room with a dead guy all too well... I remember having to 'drive' the bodies down to the morgue... to put them in the refridgerator for later 'fixing'. I look at that particular job as an important one..not just for the income to provide my University education, but for the education in life and death. Working in a hospital definitely gave me a perspective on life that I won't forget.

Barbiebunny69 43F

6/13/2005 12:42 am

uh buddy can we go back to high school now?

Tala4u2 54M  
2957 posts
6/13/2005 7:32 am

Is dandruff dead brain cells osmosising through the scalp?

Tala, Wizard of The Kingdom of BooBoBia, DEITY,

purejoy4fem 46F/44F
682 posts
6/13/2005 3:35 pm

Came here expecting a nice chuckle over a sweet grand-ma story, instead I get creeped out. I'm gonna have the hebee jeebies for the rest of the day

keithcancook 60M
17718 posts
6/13/2005 4:41 pm

no kidding purejoy. waggy is right, the comments have been amazing. Some of them unsettling as well. I have been too serious lately and will see what i can do to lighten up a little...

AmberSolaire 42M

6/13/2005 6:19 pm

The inescapable fact of life is that it does end.

I have looked at this post several times, and I keep coming back to that last line.Keith in one fell swoop has ripped me open and exposed my one fear.

Its not just a small fear, but an overiding ,all encompassing one that turns the chill of my sweat to ice, and keeps me awake at night.Its irrational I know but its the sheer inevitability of it that scares the hell out of me.
Its the fact that it seems so indiscriminate.There is no order to the reapers scythe.Old, young, fit or poorly they all go.Its not fair and we have no real idea of when it will be us.

Our time will be up when our time is up.

There is nothing we can do about it.Thats what scares me most.

I have never seen a dead body.I never want to.I prefer not to think of it at all.
I prefer to thank God everytime I open my eyes to realise I can see the dawn and live another day.I embrace it always , for it may be my last.

IPman 60M
313 posts
6/14/2005 5:50 pm

I don’t think I have ever really shared this story of my life, but Keith’s blog brought it back to me. My parents always wanted me to be a doctor, and so I went to college to do just that. I worked hard and did well. I finally got accepted to a Med school in Philadelphia. During my senior summer, they offered me the chance to work in a hospital for the summer and follow some Doc’s around the hospital while I did low level work. I needed the money and took the job.

I had always thought that hospitals were healing places, this hospital was located in a poor county in the middle of the state, and most folks were farmers or miners. No one was in great health and by the time someone got to the hospital, it was already too late to help many of them. I moved from radiology, to orthopedics and meet some wonderful people along the way. I loved the science, there was so much to know, and I was always jazzed by the technology.

What I was not prepared for was the suffering and the humanity of the job. I never comprehended that my life would be dedicated to serving sick people, really sick people. I saw children; teenagers and adults die that summer. I watched how much emotional energy it consumed in me to watch the process and cope with those left living. I was emotionally unprepared to support the family and separate the work. And although I personaly did not have to speak with anyone, watching people react to the news was heartbreaking.

Dying is a process, it can take a week or two, and for the most part everybody dies through the same process. You learn quickly through your experience and you can spot it early. The hospital was nothing like the books and TV shows that I had read and watched as a kid. There were real people dying every day, I thought that someday I would be helping people and saving a few.

That summer changed me; it ultimately changed my future profession, I learned that I was not wired for the suffering. I was unable at 19 to possess the necessary emotional intelligence to cope with all I saw in three months. I will never forget the love of family, the passion of the workers, and the fragileness of life. I was greatful that I had a chance to learn who I was or more accurately who I was not. That summer I was changed forever.

obedientsub2005 48F
61 posts
6/16/2005 5:06 am

That is a terrific story, IP man... I think you never really get used to it, and I have been accused by the Palliative Care team (read -- two RN's and one social worker whose mission is to make most elderly "no codes"... OK, that is a bit cynical, but they seem to be at odds with me if I try anything but "let's put them on comfort care...) of being "too close" to the family and the patient, because after they have been in the hospital a while, I usually cannot help but getting to know them, all of them, as people... the sculptor who also dug all the county park trails himself in 1970 with a shovel and pickaxe... the guy who played guitar on the same stage with Jimi Hendrix at the Monterrey Festival... the woman who came to the US from Hungary with her 8 children after her husband died... penniless... and then opened a restaurant... all the stories... it is why I am a physician, and why I am WHO I am... I don't believe in "distance yourself" when it comes to their feelings... sure, you have to make ultra-objective decisions, but when it comes to giving them a chance and staying an extra hour to try to figure out what the hell is going on with them, or just saying "screw it" and going home and then trying to justify it by saying it is all about distancing yourself... well that is bullshit.

Anyway, one should worry about the doc who is NOT affected by a death... not one who IS...

The biggest favor one can do for a family is tell them the truth so they can come and spend the last moments of their loved one's life with them... with one guy, his family came from all over the US... he had 5 wives, many kids, many grandkids... all came to spend his last few days with him... they all made the decision to withdraw the ventilator... it was getting to be torture after a while... and place him on a morphine drip to allay the pain and anxiety. They brought home videos which had been taken when his own children were small, in the 1950's... during his first marriage... and I got to see him as a young man... building things, scooping up his kids when he got home from a sweaty day at work... giving out Christmas presents as Santa... and despite the fact he was dying, with the 25 people in the room around him laughing, remembering things... being with him as he died... it was absolutely beautiful... transforming... I was so honored that the family wanted me to be part of it as I was allowed to see a glimpse of the care they had for him... he died with all of them around him... I still have the piece of sculpture (he was an artist)that his family gave me. Every time I see the polished sculpture with his signature, I remember him... and that is what it is all about...

I think for me it stopped being about only suffering when I realized that God had given me a small amount of "power" (small "p") to do something about it, to at least help soften the blow... I definitely don't think I could have gotten here (and I still have so far to go) without having experienced the wrenching pain of almost losing my husband when I DIDN'T have any power to control whether he lived or died, or whether he was treated properly in the hospital... I try to remember those feelings when a family is freaking out and screaming at me or the nurses, or when I just am so tired I just want to escape and go home... I remember that night....

Great post, Keith...


hardcopy75 41M
47 posts
6/18/2005 1:45 am


LittleQueenieGo 60F
14 posts
6/20/2005 7:32 pm

being a private duty nurse, i would love to comment on this!!

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