The Night Chloe's Dad Died
A reflection on a tragic story of drug addiction that hit close to home.
[Keywords: fentanyl, substance abuse, heroin, death, overdose, devastation, children, pain, sadness, Bible, medical, doctor, ER, code blue, opioid crisis]
Length: Medium, 1007 words
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
– Romans 14:10-11
“Dr Ryen, there’s a Code Blue coming in. They’ll be here in five minutes.”
Go time. My team and I sprang into action, gathering what equipment we’d need to raise the dead. Life-and-death emergencies don’t roll through our town very often, so a nervous energy takes over anytime a Code Blue is called.
Minutes later the paramedics burst through the doors of the Emergency Department in a flurry of activity. One of them was performing chest compressions. Another was holding a bag of saline. A third was steering the stretcher into our trauma bay. A fourth was squeezing breaths in through a breathing tube. The patient himself was gray and unmoving. His shirt had been cut away, and his arms hung lifelessly at his sides.
We found out later that he had been driving north on the highway. After stopping for gas, he shot fentanyl or heroin or some other opioid into his arm while his girlfriend was inside the store, When she returned, he wasn’t breathing.
Thus the Code Blue.
Now he was being worked on by a team of medical staff in a sleepy, small-town hospital. His eyes were wide open, gazelessly staring upward as he lay on his back. His whole body was being rocked by the CPR. The pressure of the chest compressions had forced the stomach contents out of his mouth, so there was green vomit all over his face and chest, even in his unblinking eyes. His heart had faint electrical activity but wasn't producing a pulse.
We tried everything to revive him: adrenaline into his veins, opioid-reversing medication, breathing tube down his trachea. Nothing worked. His body had completely shut down. Eventually, his heart rhythm stopped altogether.
Half hour after he arrived, at three in the morning, I pronounced him dead. Nobody had any objections – we all knew he was gone.
Years ago I had an old mentor who made a point of softly speaking to any patient shortly after they died, “May angels guide you home.” It was a reminder that the patient wasn’t just a medical file to be closed but a soul that had left the earth. Since then, I’ve adopted the same practice. So, after the excitement had faded and the team had dispersed, I gently held the lifeless hand of my patient, with tubes and lines still sticking out of him, and whispered, “May angels guide you home.”
It was then I noticed the tattoo that covered his forearm. Just a single name, surrounded by colorful designs:
Was that the name of a little girl who had just lost her dad?
I still didn’t even know his name. It was hours later when the police arrived and informed us of his identity: a thirty-three year old male named Todd.
The rest of the night was a blur. The fast pace of the code dissolved into the routine care of other patients, paperwork, and dictations. I didn’t think much of Todd until I got home the next morning. The memory of his vomit-covered eyes was seared into my brain. There was nothing we could’ve done to change the outcome, but that young man – about my own age – was heavy on my heart. Alive one moment, gone the next. As soon as I got home, I had to find each of my kids and hold them tight.
For me that night, Todd was the face of the opioid crisis. And yet, it could have just as easily been me.
Mental illness and addiction run in my own family. I had a cousin live on the streets of Vancouver addicted to drugs for two years before he cleaned himself up. Another cousin overdosed alone in his room; he was found dead the next morning by my aunt. My grandmother suffered from schizophrenia and died when my mother was just a girl.
Why should Todd die and I live? None of us are immune to addiction. In fact, just a week prior to that night, I had "overdosed" on alcohol, and yet I walked away with a hangover the next morning. Todd, however, will never walk again, never see again, never breathe again. He’ll never see Chloe again. But if I’d lived his life, I’d be the one wearing a toe tag right now and he’d be the one holding his baby girl. So why him and not me?
The Bible says this:
The race is not to the swift, and the battle is not to the warriors… time and chance overtake them all. Moreover, a man does not know his time. (Ecc 9:11-12)
We’re all just a step away from death and disaster. Tragedy strikes without warning: healthy people get cancer, good drivers crash their cars, kids get addicted to drugs. Nobody knows the time of our death – I’m sure Todd didn’t set out that night knowing he’d never make it home. The best we can do is live every moment as best we can.
[Remember God] before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed. (Ecc 12:6)
And let’s try not to judge others who seem to be making poor life choices – under different circumstances that could just as easily be us.
Don’t judge so that you won’t be judged. (Matt 7:1)
I’ve seen a lot of awful cases in my line of work, but I’ll never forget that girl’s name inked into a dead man’s arm.
May angels guide you home, Todd.
© D. B. Ryen Incorporated, November 2020.