Stones in His Throat

“They have no idea what they’re asking,”

“They need to just let go.”

“Of course, when they get here they suddenly become the wife.”

“Shit! Call a code.”


“Give me the phone! We need a cart in 312.”

“Emergency cart needed in 312.”

The voice over the loudspeaker was always so calm. I don’t think I ever met her, but I imagined her with big glasses and dark, curly hair.

“Do you need help?”

“No, I think I’ve got it now. They haven’t written any orders yet.”

I have no medical training, all I can do is enter the doctor’s orders in the computer and answer the phone.

“You need to listen in,” The clerk from another desk has come to check on me, she connects the speaker at the desk to 312, “They might call out orders from the room.”

“Okay.” Muffled shouting comes from the speaker. All of it direct, steady, it has to be the nurses and techs. When it’s calm they’ll stop by and chat, meandering conversations, but in rooms surrounded by bells and “the family” they all have voices like highways, creating the quickest route between two points. Another sound rises above them, above the alarms and the pack or arriving doctors. It’s gasping, rasping, rattling. He’s trying to breathe. He’s older than I can ever imagine being. He’s surrounded by family. He’s thin and age-tanned and leathery. They need to just let him go and he’s trying to breathe. It sounds like gravel and meat grinding together. He’s been dying for days. There’s a living will in his chart. I checked it just an hour ago, to make sure everything was in order. They can’t intubate him, but they’ll try CPR. He’s gasping and rattling and I’ve never even seen anyone die before. I’ve never seen him or spoke to him, he hasn’t been able to speak while he’s here and I don’t go in patient’s rooms if I can help it. I wouldn’t even know his name if I hadn’t pulled out his chart, he’s always just been Room 312, and I’m listening to him die.

They aren’t calling out for orders, they won’t call out for any. They’ve been expecting is, arguing with the family for a full DNR, but the family didn’t understand what it meant to call a code. Turning death into shouts and struggles and gravel in the chest. I wanted to turn off the speaker, to disconnect from the noise, but the other clerk is still there. Death is rare on our floor, so when the sound and violence for breath ends and the crowd disperses she talks me through the steps. A magnet with a flower on the door, a set of forms to prepare, a list of people to call. A cart comes up with coffee and cookies for the family. They don’t eat any of them. They talk to the nurses and hold each other and move down the hall to the visitors area.

When I get home I talk to my roommate, who’s tells me about the jobs she applied for and what happened on Maury. I think of bringing up what happened, but I don’t know what to say. “I heard a man’s dying breaths today and I’m scared about how easy it is to act like nothing happened,” No, too melodramatic. Instead I laugh at her impersonation of the I’m Not the Father Dance, and decide it’s not something I need to talk about right now. It wasn’t even my tragedy. I don’t know him, I’m not mourning him, so what right do I have to be troubled by his death.

I’ll tell her about it over a year later. We’ve moved to Chicago, and after months of sleeping on a couch in her friend’s living room I finally have my own place. We’re talking about terrible moments at work. Screaming customers, long hours, the boss who accused her of stealing.

“At the hospital we had to listen in when they called a code, in case they called out orders. It was kind of terrible.” My voice warbles comically, but it’s so obviously not funny anyone can tell I’m trying to cover up something. Exactly what that is, I’m still not sure. It’s silent for a moment any I’m not sure what I expect. Normally when talking about shitty situations we trade off, like a game of who can work themselves to death first.

“I really don’t think I could have worked there.”

“I am so glad I quit.”