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Are birth and death in cosmic balance?

My nursing career spanned several decades. Starting with nursing in intensive care, I quickly progressed to nursing management and ended my career teaching.

When I was a nursing student, I faced my first experience caring for a dying patient. This man had a dissecting aneurysm and there was no hope of his survival. I remember watching with wonder as the life force left his body. The animation was gone and there was just a body growing colder. There were no flashing lights, no angels singing, no visible spirit ascending. Just a quiet passing.

I was upset and emotionally drained. A caring supervisor sent me for a break to the cafeteria that was on another floor of the hospital. On my way, I passed the nursery and heard a newborn baby crying. All at once something clicked in my brain and I somehow saw the balance of life. Oh yes, now it made sense; new life coming into the world to replace those lives that were ending.

Many years later I was teaching a group of nursing students; registered nurses returning to school in pursuit of baccalaureate degrees. They brought their unique nursing experiences to their learning. Those who had dealt with birth or death as midwives or hospice nurses tended to have qualities in common. I found them to be empathetic, creative and possessing a spiritual dimension. Two stories come to mind.

The first was relayed to me by a student who had been a midwife with her own practice in home deliveries. She told of a couple who had mixed feelings about being parents. They were both busy people with active careers who weren’t certain if they wanted to share their time with a new baby.

The pregnancy progressed well with no apparent problems. On the day of the birth the labor seemed quite routine. The fetal heart tones were good with no hint of distress. However, when the baby emerged, the cord was wrapped around its neck. The baby was blue and didn’t take a first breath. In the words of the midwife, “I quickly and carefully removed the cord and was preparing to take life-saving measures when I heard the strong voice of the mother saying ‘Give her to me!’ What to do? Time was of the essence. Somehow I knew — divine intervention? — that I should give the babe to its mother. She held the baby in front of her and said ‘I want you! I need you! Breathe!’ The baby took a deep breath and let out a lusty cry.”

The second story was of another student who had a background as a midwife. I sent her out to care for a hospice patient. The purpose of the visit was to give an enema to a lady dying of cancer. As it turned out, the woman had taken a turn for the worse, and was much weaker than when the appointment had been made.

As related by this student, “I found this delightful lady who seemed content with death but who was saddened by being unable to keep doing the things she enjoyed. She told of how she loved working in her garden. Now she was confined to bed. I looked around and there was no wheelchair or walker. What to do? I found a wheelbarrow in the garage and padded it with blankets. With help from her husband we got her up and into it. I took her out to her garden and carefully lowered her onto the soft ground. It was a beautiful sunny day. We spent the time weeding, cutting flowers and throwing snails against the fence. When she tired, I took her back into the house.

“As I tried to clean the dirt from her hands she begged me to leave it. She said that she loved the smell of the earth. She fell asleep content with a sort of joy radiating from her face.”

We heard that she died very peacefully the next day and this student said, “Oh no, I forgot to give the enema.” I just smiled and said, “You did so much more. You cared for her spirit.”

Esther Halvorson is a member of the Jottings Group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.

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