It was another day at Canossa Health Center. My fellow interns and I were just helping out in the pharmacy when one of the community health volunteers came to us, asking if we would like to witness one of the doctors inserting an NG tube into a patient. Having never seen it done before, we immediately said yes. We walked out of the pharmacy and waited in front of the clinic for the doctor. I was a little bit unsure as to what exactly we were doing or watching; I didn’t even know whether the woman we were waiting with was the patient since she seemed perfectly healthy. I didn’t know much about NG tubes, but she didn’t look like she needed one.
We talked for a little bit and found out that her name was Donna Lin and that she had four children: three daughters and one son. We talked a little bit more until the doctor came. We then left Canossa and began walking. We walked past the small shops and homes, crossed the street, and passed by the daycare center. We walked down a small narrow path where a lot of the temporary homes were, stopping in front of one and walked in.
The next few moments were a blur.
My eyes first went to the man standing in the middle of the single room that they call their home. I followed his gaze and Ate Donna Lin to a stiff concrete bed on top of which an old woman laid. She seemed so frail and fragile. The right hand and right foot were swollen up compared to the left side. She seemed so… still.
I couldn’t quite understand the situation until Ate Donna Lin kneeled over the woman on the bed, shaking her, shouting, and crying. The wail that she let out is possibly the most horrific noise that I’ve heard and that I’ll always remember. We stood there for what seemed like an eternity, helpless because we couldn’t do anything. I felt even more helpless because I didn’t understand any of the Tagalog they were saying.
Later, as we walked back, the doctor explained the situation to us – that the old woman on the bed had been Ate Donna Lin’s mother. The woman had a stroke a month ago and had left Philippines General Hospital three days ago and with her NG tube still in, against the hospital’s advice. The doctor believed that there were many miscommunications between the medical staff and the family, since the family didn’t seem to completely understand the waiver they had signed and the critical condition that Ate Donna Lin’s mother was in. Ate Donna Lin thought that all she and her brother needed to do was feed their mother, and she would get better. Unfortunately, she didn’t know that her mother was very sick with pneumonia and was experiencing sepsis. And that she had died of sepsis, just two or three hours before we arrived.
When we returned to Canossa and walked back into the pharmacy, everyone asked what happened. The doctor explained it to everyone once again, except revealing more details this time – that Ate Donna Lin was experiencing tremendous guilt. Before one month ago when her mother had her stroke, the two women were not on speaking terms. It seemed that Ate Donna Lin had been a bad daughter and now she feels terrible for it. And it was only when her mother had her stroke, that the two estranged family members reconnected and bonded.
Hearing this, I couldn’t maintain my emotions any longer. I couldn’t help but let the tears fall.
It was easy to make it professional and look at things from a scientific and medical perspective. But when I heard Ate Donna Lin and her mother’s background story and recalled the horrific wail that escaped the former woman’s mouth, I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t do anything but cry, letting myself be human and imagining myself in that situation.
Working in the healthcare field, it’s important to protect ourselves – to have a switch that we can use to turn off the humanity just a little bit to allow us to function and do our jobs to the best of our abilities. But sometimes, it’s equally important to turn that switch back on and see that these patients and families are humans. It’s important to hear their stories and understand what they’re going through, because often all they want is to be heard and cared for.