Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Road Ahead

I don't dream about the hospital very often, although my work there certainly occupies a fair portion of my waking thoughts. Last winter, I had two surreal anxiety dreams about the hospital. Sandwiched between them was a dream in which I was driving a car down a two-lane road through a forest; it was dark under the trees, but I could see light ahead. I didn't get there, though, because I stopped at a roadside stand and then my car broke down. In the dream, I was anxious about continuing my trip, but glad to be in the beautiful forest.

As dreams go, this is a pretty banal one -- and other people's dreams are always banal anyway, I know; please humor me! -- but it stayed with me, partly because of its placement between the two hospital dreams. I couldn't discern any connection to the hospital, and I wondered what it was doing there. I finally just dismissed the whole incident as brain-static and forgot about it.

Until some weeks ago, when a patient died in radiology during my hospital shift. The patient had been brought down from ICU; family at the bedside had just left to have lunch, and were supposed to be returning soon. The hospital staff didn't want to wheel the patient's body through the hallways to the morgue for fear of meeting the family, so the body was put in one of the radiology rooms. A nurse dragged me all over the hospital -- ICU, ICU waiting area, cafeteria -- looking for the relatives. We had no luck. We returned to radiology, where a harrassed staff chaplain who'd just been paged to another floor asked if I'd please wait with the body until the family arrived.

Of course I said I would. A CNA waited with me, and we chatted pleasantly about the weather and shopping and shoes, occasionally walking over to gaze respectfully at the corpse, who looked placid and peaceful. Dead bodies don't bother me unless I interacted with the patient while still alive; in that case, the difference is chilling. But by the time I showed up, this patient was already gone.

Occasionally the radiology charge nurse popped in to see how we were doing and to bring us extra chairs and tissues for the family. The radiology people were a little freaked out. Patients don't die on them very often.

At some point I looked around the room and realized that it was the stress-echo lab. In addition to the exam table and various monitoring equipment, the room contained a treadmill. (This is why the room was available as a holding area; most stress echoes happen in the morning, and the patient died in the afternoon.) Taped to the wall in front of the treadmill was a photograph, probably from a calendar, of a two-lane road winding through a redwood forest. The road under the trees was dark, but you could see sunlight ahead, where the road bent out of view.

I blinked. I walked over and examined the photo. I haven't been able to find one that really looks like it on the net; in the photo at the top of this post -- the closest I could find, but only a pale approximation -- the trees are too short, and there isn't enough contrast between darkness and light.

Some thoughtful tech had clearly put the photo there to make the treadmill test less boring for patients, to try to create the illusion that instead of walking in place in a colorless hospital exam room, they were walking on a road through a forest. Looking at the photograph, I thought about the dead patient on the table, and I had a vivid image of the patient still walking on that road, but out of sight now: around the bend, where the road became invisible to anyone still under the trees.

That was also where the sunlight was, though.

I showed the photo to the CNA, and shared my thoughts about it, although I didn't mention my dream. Later, I did the same with the staff chaplain and the distraught family. I don't know if the image meant anything to any of them, and I don't know if talking about it was appropriate. The staff chaplain merely gave me a baffled look, and the family was far too stunned to deal with metaphors.

But now I know what my dream about the road was doing between the two hospital dreams, all those months ago.


  1. I know what you mean, Susan. Subtle little signs like this sometimes come at the right time. Thanks for sharing a lovely story.

  2. You've probably heard the two wonderful images of life mentioned by the Venerable Bede? Both are attributed to the pre-Christian people of the British isles.

    One describes a swallow flying out of a dark stormy night and into a lighted hall, where there are people and life and warmth and energy, and then out the other end of the hall, back into the cold rainy night.

    The other describes us all as walking along a path, single file. Ahead of us are our ancestors, who started out earlier and therefore are far out of sight, maybe around a bend or behind some trees. Behind us are our descendants and the people who will follow us later. We can only see the footsteps of those who came before.

    Thought you might enjoy these, or a reminder of these, since I'm sure you've read them in Bede before!

  3. You've reminded me of a story.... (I have a lot of stories.) I'll have to get it down on paper.

    I appreciate that you offered the perspective on death that the picture offered, even if the folks present weren't ready yet. I would suggest that such stories are not lost. The sit in the back of the soul and are recovered when needed, often at quite unexpected times.


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