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The Procedure of A Veteran's Death

January 15, 2016 - I spent another few days in hospital last week. It wasn't a set back, or obvious return of cancer cells and tumor, but just another complication of the surgeries and radiation my body has endured. Fortunately, I didn't have another major surgery this time, but that's only because the ceiling fell down in the operating room.

I had gone to the Emergency Department of the VA hospital on Thursday evening and was admitted early Friday morning. For most of that morning I was earnestly arguing with the surgeon, and anybody else that would listen, that the particular problem would probably resolve after a few more hours with the nasal-gastric tube. By early afternoon I had somehow lost that argument .

I was lying on a gurney in pre-op, getting the usual shave and haircut, when the anesthetist came in to get me ready for his part of the operation. This is a technical time for the medical staff. They are making sure I'm fully prepared for the procedure. Marks have been made on my gut where ports will be stabbed into my sides and lines drawn from hither to yon to guide the surgeon's knife as he slices through skin, muscle, and abdominal wall. I've been through it enough times now that I actually take part in the ritual, asking questions and offering suggestions about the best vein to place the secondary IV.

The anesthetist has a vial of chemicals in his gloved hand and is about to plunge me into a state of unconscious being when the surgeon quickly steps into the room and says, "STOP!"  My heart skipped a beat, thinking that maybe he had noticed an improper chemical or some other serious violation of protocol that would cause me harm. Nope. He informed us all that the ceiling had fallen in and that no other suitable OR was available at the moment. Three weeks of nearly constant rain had caused an unseen leak in the roof and it was going to take a while to ensure the mess was properly repaired and cleaned.

Doctor and I discussed what was to happen and the plan was to place me into a room for the weekend and re-commence the process Monday. "Hopefully," he said, "the problem will resolve before then."  Oddly, that was what I had suggested in the first place, but what do I know, I'm just the guy on the table that hasn't had the benefit of twenty years of education and training. My twenty years have been invested in learning to be the uncomplaining patient. Uncomplaining? Hell no! That wouldn't be in my character, although I suggest things frequently to those around me.

Early Monday morning the parade of house physicians, interns, residents, and the surgeon started at 6 AM. The consensus was that the NG tube had done the trick and it wouldn't be necessary to cut me open. Nor would I be forced to spend the next three weeks in bed recovering from the wounds. I firmly remind everybody that's what I said from the moment I arrived on Thursday night , but I'm just being a smart ass, right?

I gleefully sped away from the room and the hospital campus, knowing the day will come when my departure from the grounds will be much different.

And that brings me to the subject of this essay. Those first few hours after a veteran has taken the last breath. The time between the final exhalation of life and the arrival at a mortuary, where procedure and routine take charge over the body of  a once proud protector of our republic. 

I was walking the hallway of the wing Sunday morning. It was just after the 8 AM shift change for the nursing staff. Walking outside of my room is one of my defensive mechanisms against the blue moods that tend to overwhelm me when hospitalized. It's normal practice that anti-depressants be ceased when in-patient. Don't ask me why, but the lack of chemical aids in that regard leave me emotionally fragile and it doesn't take much for me to shift from anger to despair. The walking just keeps me thinking there may be some good future ahead if I can just keep stepping forward.

I turned the corner past the small ICU unit, plodding toward the other end of the hall. The elevator door opened and a nursing staff tech in green scrubs begins to push a gurney down the hallway. It's disguised to look like a clean laundry cart. I know there is nothing on the gurney, because it's rattling a bit and the technician isn't struggling at all to push it. The framework of green canvas over the gurney looks worn and slightly tattered. Maybe that's part of the disguise. I don't know, but I have an uncomfortable feeling nonetheless. The gurney and the tech turn down the hallway toward my room and I continue my solitary walk of discontent.

A lap later I make the turn toward my room and the tech and gurney appear from a rear entrance to the ICU unit. The gurney is now laden and the tech is glumly pushing and avoiding contact with my eyes. She passes two nurses chatting at their portable computer station - they are bubbling away and laughing about the results of last night's lottery numbers. It's as if their world and that of the gurney don't exist in the same plane. Their chatty routine isn't altered a bit. But I, I step back toward the wall and come as close to a stance of attention as can be reached while modestly holding the back of the open hospital gown.

After the gurney has been pushed down the hall and entered the elevator I spot two staff members coming from the front entrance of ICU, lugging a couple of bags of soiled linen to the laundry chute. "Excuse me for being nosy and morbid," I ask, "but do I assume correctly that was a deceased patient being pushed along on that gurney?" The answer is a sad yes, he and another had died during the night.

Mortified, I continued my questions. Why was there no escort? Why wasn't he draped with a flag? Why did the staff in the hallway not even stop for a moment and render a measure of respect and honor for this veteran?  The rueful response was, "You might want to talk with the Chaplain, he's responsible for the procedure."

I was devastated, distraught, and demoralized. I know that not far in my future my body will take part in this "procedure." It's my wish there be no funeral, no somber gathering or "celebration" of my life. I want my family to look around, gaze at the sky, and know that I tried to enjoy every moment possible. I reveled in flying above the earth, sailing the ocean waters, hiking mountains as a youth and, when older, riding across the country over all types of roads. Most of all I embraced the interaction with others; my family, friends, and those that took care of my physical and emotional wounds.

Because there will be no gathering, I realize there will be only one opportunity for my mortal remains to be given ceremonial honors - to be draped with the flag of our republic and allowed the escort of my fellow veterans.

I researched "the procedure" and found that hiding the departure of deceased patients in mufti of a laundry cart is normal in most hospitals. The surmise is that most patients and families will only briefly see the cart and therefore not be upset by the specter of death.

Well folks, when "Wonnacott has left the building" I want it known. I want that last measure of acknowledgement of my service and devotion. For the five or ten minutes that my body is on that gurney, when I am moved from the hospital bed to the moment I'm dumped into a body bag and taken to the place of cremation, I want my body draped with the flag I so proudly hailed. And I desire an escort of veterans. I want everyone to know another patriot has passed.

As much as I want all of that, I know it probably won't happen as I wish. It wouldn't be uniform. It wouldn't be part of "the procedure."  The final disappointment of an unconventional life will be the conformity of my death.



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