It wasn’t the body that surprised me.
I’d heard there had been a death on our unit; someone from the local mortuary was on his way. No, what surprised me was that the door to room 110 was wide open. I could see right in there, see the body carelessly covered with a rumpled sheet.
I was a little offended. Show some respect! I couldn’t imagine any of our nurses treating a deceased patient this way. That door should be closed! And that sheet over his face – we never pull linens over anyone’s face! We courteously tuck the person in as if they were sleeping, plump the pillow, smooth the sheets, and close the door for privacy. Leaving him like that – a sheet thoughtlessly thrown over him, in full view of the nurses’ station – was disrespectful to the patient, to his family, and to visitors.
Some people might find it very unsettling, walking past the room and seeing someone like that.
Mind you, I didn’t really know who had died. No one had said to me, “Gosh, my patient in 110 passed today,” or “When the mortuary staff arrives, direct them to 110.” I just knew someone had died, somewhere on the unit.
But I didn’t trouble myself with the details. It was obvious, wasn’t it? I mean, you see a body lying motionless under a sheet, what else could it be, except a dead person?
Nobody would sleep like that, would they?
The answer, of course, is yes.
So the mortuary guy shows up.
“I’m from the mortuary,” he says to me in a low voice. “Do you know where I can find the. . . ” He trails off discreetly.
I nod briskly. “Room 110,” I say with authority. “Right there,” I say, pointing decisively.
Yep, Carol knows it all.
Tip to new nurses: Don’t act like you know something unless you really do know it.
Confession to new nurses: I was an experienced nurse when this happened. Nobody’s perfect.
The mortuary guy dutifully trundles off with his stretcher to retrieve the body. Entering room 110, he pulls the curtain solemnly. I hear a soft zip as he opens the body bag in preparation for rolling the corpse into it.
I sit at the nurses’ station to chart on my own patients, feeling very satisfied with myself. Another job well done!
Let’s just pause here a moment, and recall all the wonderfully chilling ghost stories we’ve heard while sitting around the campfire. Ghosts suddenly materializing in front of you. Zombies lurching drunkenly in your direction, arms outstretched. Corpses, whose eyes suddenly fly open as they sit bolt upright in their coffins.
Corpses sitting up! Terrifying, right? We all jumped and shrieked, clutching each other; we all shivered in our sleeping bags afterwards, unable to sleep. Thank goodness the stories aren’t true– dead people don’t magically come alive! The mortuary guy certainly knew it. Every day, he rolled people into body bags, and they never, ever moved.
So I hear that soft zip as he prepares the body bag. There is a moment of silence.
And then I hear a surprised shout along with a strangled cry; there is a loud clatter, the sound of a metal stretcher crashing to the ground. Looking up, I see the curtain to 110 billowing wildly; it appears that someone is pawing at it frantically. And listen! Are those whimpering noises?
I watch, open-mouthed, gripped with sudden misgiving. Uh-oh…
And then the mortuary guy is shooting from the room, looking very white, the curtain flapping in his wake. Behind him, the patient in 110 is sitting straight up, very much alive, clutching his sheets and looking very indignant indeed.
I’m not sure who received the worst scare. The patient, who was awoken from sleep as someone tried to wrestle him into a body bag? Or the mortuary guy, who just had every ghost story confirmed when a corpse suddenly opened its eyes and launched itself upright with a yell?
We nurses spring into action, checking on the patient and attending to the mortuary guy. The patient waves us off impatiently, glaring at the hapless mortuary guy’s back, then lies back down for his nap, pulling the covers securely over his head.
Ashen-faced and barely able to stand, the mortuary guy looks like he could use a hospital bed himself. We guide him to a chair, offering him water along with apologies; it takes a while for his color to return and his hands to steady.
He is directed to the correct room by someone who actually knows what she’s talking about; he seems very reluctant to enter, and keeps glancing back over his shoulder with something akin to despair. Do I have to go in there? Will this corpse open its eyes too?
I wonder if he now gives each body a surreptitious little nudge before attempting to roll it into the awaiting body bag.
Just to make sure it won’t sit up and yell.