Not Til the Priest Gets Here!

Jonathan Monroe grew up in a devout Catholic home where mass was attended every Sunday and Hail Marys were as much a part of the daily diet as bread and potatoes. Unfortunately, despite completing Catechism and twelve years at a Parochial school, Jonathan rebelled against everything his parents, priests, and school teachers, (nuns) had taught him. First, it was binge drinking, then marijuana, and then cocaine addiction so severe it consumed his life. Mrs. Monroe prayed the Rosary and lit candles for her prodigal son. She forked out thousands of dollars for in-patient drug rehabilitation, and attended Al-Anon meetings, but all to no avail—Jonathan’s addiction reigned supreme.

One fateful day, Jonathan’s cocaine abuse raised his blood pressure so high it triggered a massive stroke. His girlfriend discovered him hours later, fully comatose and barely breathing. She summoned an ambulance and notified his parents of his dire condition. He was rushed to the hospital where a CT of his head confirmed the stroke.

By this time, his parents had arrived at the Neurointensive Care Unit and were understandably devastated. Mrs. Monroe could barely contain her sobbing long enough to hear the grim prognosis. “The extent of his brain injury is incompatible with life,” the Neurologist stated as kindly as he could. “In fact, I don’t know how he’s survived as long as he has.”

In an effort to console Mrs. Monroe, who was clutching her son’s hand, I placed a comforting hand on her heaving shoulders and said, “I’ll bet Jonathan was holding on long enough for you to say goodbye to him.”

She suddenly straightened up and gripped my arm. “You cannot let him die until Father Bryant gets here and performs Last Rites. It’s his only hope.”

Of course, no sooner were the words out of her mouth then Jonathan quit breathing and went into complete cardio-pulmonary arrest. The mother shrieked at me, “Do something! Do something! You cannot let him die!”

We immediately launched into CPR and hollered for the nurse to announce overhead “Code Blue, Room 530.” Within a minute, an entire team of nurses and doctors dashed into the room and an endotracheal tube was inserted down his mouth and into his trachea. The nurse squeezed oxygen down the endotracheal tube to his lungs using an Ambu bag. I had already initiated chest percussions at a firm and rapid pace.

After an infusion of Epinephrine, we stopped CPR long enough to see if he had responded. No luck. We resumed CPR, but after another ten minutes, it was obvious to everyone on the code team that Jonathan was dead and nothing we did would change that.

Just as we were ready to call off the code and pronounce him legally dead, his mother barged into the room and insisting Jonathan would go straight to Hell for all eternity if we pronounced him dead before he received Last Rites from Father Bryant. To my knowledge, this was not official Catholic doctrine, but since I wasn't Catholic and and it didn’t seem appropriate to delve into deep, theological debates in the middle of performing CPR on someone’s deathbed, I kept my mouth shut.

Thus, out of compassion to Mrs. Monroe, the Neurologist insisted we resume the code. After an additional twenty minutes of performing futile chest percussions on a corpse, the Neurologist glanced at his watch and inquired of Mrs. Monroe, “Any idea when Father Bryant will make it to the hospital?”

The mother glanced over at her husband and said, “When did he tell you he’d be here, Harold?”

The father’s head jerked up. “I didn’t call him. I thought you did—on your way to the hospital.”

The mother looked incensed. “I didn’t call him. I thought you did!”

They both ran toward the nursing station to page Father Bryant.

The nurses and doctors on the code team all groaned and rolled their eyes—we’d already performed CPR with no response whatsoever for over thirty minutes and the priest hadn’t even been called?

By now, the body was cold, cyanotic, and bloated. The shoulders of one outspoken member of the code team slumped and he spoke what we all were thinking. “Come on! This guy is dead and has been for thirty minutes. It’s time to call this charade off and pronounce him dead.”

Hands cramping and back aching after thirty minutes of vigorous chest percussions, it sure sounded good to me. Another team member agreed. “What are we waiting for—rigor mortis?”

“The funeral?” said a second team member.

“Maggots?” piped in an irreverent third.

A male nurse added, “Look, if the dude’s in Hell, us beating on his chest another twenty minutes isn’t going to change it. Let’s call it a day.”

Unfortunately, Mrs. Monroe was standing right outside the door and had overheard the ghastly comments. She barged into the room and pointed her index finger at the mouthy male nurse. “So help me, I’ll sue every one of you if you let my son die before Father Bryant gets here.”

O-kay! We momentarily froze then resumed our bagging and chest percussions with renewed vigor! Jonathan? Not so much--his muscles stiffened, his skin mottled, and his eyes stared lifelessly into space.

Finally, after fifty full minutes of performing CPR, Father Bryant rushed into the room to perform his priestly functions. I wanted to kiss his feet and say, “Bless you, Father!” When he had completed the Last Rites, the Neurologist officially pronounced Jonathan dead, and the whole code team collapsed in exhaustion.

That grueling hour of performing CPR on a young man who needlessly died from a cocaine overdose ranks as the most gut-wrenching hour I experienced in my three years of residency training. I can only hope the Last Rites brought comfort and peace to a mother who had faced the saddest tragedy a parent can endure. She'd already witnessed the downward trajectory of her son’s escalating addiction and repetitive poor choices. Now this. Tears filled my eyes at the terrible waste of a life due to drug addiction. I couldn’t help but feel the deepest compassion for Mrs. Monroe as the thought crossed my mind, "What if this had been my son?”