Death, like taxes, is inevitable. Lord knows I have seen my fair share of it in my short career as a Medical Doctor. I bet every single Medic — if asked — remembers the first patient they ever lost. In detail. But the more the loss, the more it becomes like a limb you carry around; a part of you. After a while, time debrides your memory and you forget. Though we forget, the bereaved don’t. Even if with time we don’t remember the next of kin, they remember us. I know this because seven years ago, on the 30th of July I was on the other side; and I have not forgotten.
I lived on the 9th floor in an apartment block with a lift and poor network. You would think if they had lifts, surely they should have been able to provide quality internet. But I chose it anyway because of it’s amazing view and of course — the lift. I did not know what the stairs looked like. Never once bothered to know where they were situated. So it baffles me, when on that night, I forgot the building had a lift. And I was not alone. My husband forgot too. We sprinted down 9 floors of stairs. I don’t remember feeling breathless or tired. None of us broke a sweat. What I do remember, is an ache. One that began when I received a call. A phone call that changed the course of my life. A phone call that pronounced my mum dead.
The call was not clear. Damn network. The first time the gentleman called I could barely make out his words. “Hello. Is this Susan Adongo? I am calling from….”, there was so much static I didn’t hear the rest of what he said and we got disconnected. He called right back and continued from where he left off. “I am sorry to tell you Margaret has rested in peace.” Static. But it was probably from my end because I dropped my phone and then began the descent; husband in tow.
As he cruised on the highway, I called my sister; all the while believing they were mistaken. He didn’t mention all her names. Maybe it was another Margaret. My mind was completely out of sync with reality. Wasn’t I with her the previous day calmly seated in the doctors consultation room planning this surgery? Were we not with her before she was wheeled into the operating room? Weren’t we with her post op when she asked for her warm socks because it was cold? Was it not her who reminded my brother to bring her NHIF card to prepare for her discharge? Did we not surround her and pray with her with a promise to visit early the following morning? It couldn’t be her. They were mistaken.
We got to my sisters house and found her waiting outside. She got into the car and didn’t say a word. Silence. It’s as if words would bring to the fore what we badly wanted to remain a lie. We got to the hospital and raced to the ward where we left her. Her bed was the closest to the nursing station. You could see it from there. When we got there, it was neatly spread and her bag had been packed. We went back to the nurse who was at the desk. I spoke first. “Where is Margaret?” I held my breath as I waited. I hoped she would say , ‘Oh Margaret we moved her to a private room’, but instead she looked at us and said, “She passed on. She was transferred to the morgue.” I felt like I had fallen from a height — the height was reality.
“What happened?” I asked feeling uneasy at the bottom of my stomach.
“We are not sure. She was ok when I last checked on her. Though she was a bit drowsy but that’s not unusual for a patient from theatre. I offered her some water but she declined. When I went back to check on her she was unresponsive.”
“What time did she die? Why did you pack her things? What was her blood pressure? Did you check her blood sugar? Did she say anything? I want to see her file.” I must have come on too strong. My questions were shooting faster than she could answer. When I asked for her file, she began to stall; arranging words in her mind. That is when I pulled the doctor card and suddenly the air between us was different; a tense static. She stopped speaking and gave me the speech you give when you don’t want to handle irate relatives. “The doctor will explain. No you cannot have the file. I don’t know.” I knew there was no need to keep badgering her so we proceeded to the morgue.
A gentleman who I suspect was the mortician pushed open the grey, metallic rusted door. It looked as heavy as the weight of my pain. He loomed over us. Head and shoulders above most men. He seemed upset over being woken up at three am for a viewing — as he stifled a yawn.
There was no curtain raiser. No preamble to the viewing. No welcoming song or poem. Instead, we were engulfed by the chilly air and pungent smell. Nothing prepared us for what we saw. She was lying there on the stone cold floor — her legs and face exposed.
My older sister who stood behind me started to scream on realising it was really her. Her wail was like a siren; a loud shrill. My voice was stuck in my throat. I walked in and looked straight at her face — as if I was looking for an identifying feature. I bent down to touch her remembering you are not truly dead until you are warm and dead. She was warm. I felt saltwater seeping from my eyes. We cried ungracefully (as people from my culture do) my heart hurting so exquisitely I could not hold the ugly noises that rose from my throat.
If pain had a voice, this was it.
The bored mortician was pulled out of his reverie. The sound must have been very loud because a guard standing by the door from the nearby ICU walked over.
‘Mnapiga kelele — endeni huko,’ he pointed to a dark deserted area. We remember hearing the words but none of us registered what he was saying or who he was addressing.
I needed to call someone.
‘I know,’ I thought, ‘ I will call mum. She will know what to do next.’
But how do you tell your mum that your mum is dead?
There is nothing as distraught as losing a loved one in the middle of the night. You have to wake people up from sweet slumber to deliver news you haven’t digested and absorbed. The confusion hits like crosswinds. And you have to keep repeating the same speech over and over and with each person you call you hope the story will have a different ending but it doesn’t. The worst is when they ask, “What killed her?” And you say, “I don’t know.”
Morning came but joy did not accompany the morning. It was like the sun froze and darkened on our lives and no matter how hard we cried the rays couldn’t reach us. It was a terror as we replayed the previous day over and over again. As a family we requested a postmortem to get some answers. We never did.We were told; cause of death — inconclusive. My scientific mind could not come to terms with this. People don’t just die. Do they? So without full comprehension I searched for answers for years. Spoke to specialists to see what they thought; lifted every manhole cover in my quest for closure— except one. Her surgeon.
I grew sour with each day. I had a tape recorder in my head that was constantly on play — rewind — play. I would replay the voice of the man who nonchalantly told me my mom had died, over the phone. I remembered the nurse who spoke of her and refused to answer my questions. I remembered her pink and grey bag that was packed and her wedding rings that went missing and were never found. I remembered her file that mysteriously disappeared and the toxicology part of her post mortem that was never done because “her file got lost.” I remembered the matron who said they broke the news to me over the phone because I was a doctor and would understand. I remembered the ICU guard who chased my siblings and I away because we were making noise with our cries. I carried those faces and voices with me for years. But the one I placed at the top of the heap was the one of her surgeon. Every year on the 30th I would relive the events and fold like wet paper; my will soggy. Until early this year.
I confronted him. Ok that sounds dramatic. I went to his office to meet him and have a chat with him. And I had to introduce myself because he had forgotten me. Sigh. We spoke at length but even after that, I still didn’t get the answers I was looking for. ‘What killed my mother?’ After I left his office, I realised it had been a mistake to go. It only worked to open a wound that I had been trying to bandage for years. I walked home from his office, my vision blurred by my tears, and realised I had spent so much time and energy remembering my mom for how she died instead of how she lived.
So this year I choose to remember Margaret for how she lived. An extraordinary woman by any means. A woman of God and of the people. A disciplinarian who never minced her words for the old and young alike. She was feared and loved in equal measure. A lady with an amazing laugh. It was somewhere in between a chuckle and a giggle especially when she and her only sister were in a corner yapping away. She had foresight and prepared us — her children — for the day she would leave and not come back. A lover of hardwork, a perfectionist.
My fellow medics, I know we face death often in our line of work. What may be the 10th patient you lose, is the first and only mother, father, child, sibling to that person. And they remember us. They will remember how you broke the news, how you spoke, how you looked and even what you wore. In that whole chain of people I encountered, not one ever said, “ I am sorry for your loss.” Everyone was on some high alert that made me wonder whether they had something to hide and I will probably never know. But as medics we must do better in handling the next of kin when a death occurs. Because they will remember.
The first person you are connected to is your mother. By a cord composed of 2 arteries and 1 vein. She keeps you alive by sharing her blood, her warmth and her very life. When you are born, the doctor serveres that cord and a new one is formed — an emotional cord.
In Loving Memory