A Death in Milwaukee, Circa 1969

During the first months of my internship at Milwaukee County Hospital, a distraught family asked me to remain with their loved one while he died. An elderly male with total pulmonary failure, his soul was tethered to earth only by IPPB-assisted respiration.

During the first months of my internship at Milwaukee County Hospital, a distraught family asked me to remain with their loved one while he died. An elderly male with total pulmonary failure, his soul was tethered to earth only by IPPB-assisted respiration. The family asked that “the breathing machine be turned off so he could go to heaven.”

None of the kith and kin felt they could stay in the room while the terminal event occurred. “He shouldn’t die alone,” his wife said. “He was a good man, best husband and father a family could ask for. Doctor, will you stay with him while he crosses over?”

The rest of our internal medicine team: resident, two other interns, several medical students, even the nurses, by chance or by volition, had disappeared. I told the family I would stay and, after saying their last tearful good-byes, they mournfully left the room. Alone, I realized I would literally be the one “pulling the plug.” I turned off the ventilator. Respiration ceased and reverent silence invested the room. I engaged the EKG printer and watched the last signature of this man’s earthly being. It was a moment of great import in my life and remains a clarion 40 years later.

I saved the EKG tracings. They appear here, numbered. You may look at them as interesting cardiac physiology. You may look at them as a metaphor for all our lives. One thing is certain; they bear a powerful and ultimately universal testimony of man’s ephemeral existence.

John C. Hagan III MD, FACS, FAAO, is the 2010 President of the Metropolitan Medical Society of Greater Kansas City and the editor of Missouri Medicine: The Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Missouri Medicine: The Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association, and has been reprinted by permission of the author.