She was somebody’s daughter.
I’ll never forget her pale, drawn face. I’ll never forget how thin her body was, how I had to take extra care zipping up the bag. I’ll never forget how fragile her hair felt as I tucked it gently inside.
Emergency workers will tell you that since they care for so many, it’s rare to remember specifics, to remember a name, let alone a face. But every once in awhile a case comes along that hits close to home, a patient becomes special to us, and we remember.
She was special because she was 17. She was special because her face was so gentle. And she was special because of how she died.
I’ve cared for teens who smoked pot, who overdosed on alcohol, who shot heroin. But this young girl’s overdose was not due to illegal drugs. Maybe it was an accident… maybe she didn’t know what could happen.
She had overdosed on stool softeners. On basic physical assessment, it was plain to see she’d been a victim of anorexia for some time. But in an attempt to get even thinner, she’d been taking laxatives. Over time and in excess, certain laxatives can play with your body’s electrolyte balance. At the risk of getting too technical, some electrolytes play a role in regulating your heart’s rhythm. The laxatives she was taking knocked her electrolytes out of balance and threw her heart into a rhythm called ventricular fibrillation. Her heart was already weak from trying to support her body through what must have been months, if not longer, of excessive weight loss. So despite our best efforts – CPR, drugs, shocks, fluids, everything – she could not recover.
And so I stood over her at 3 am that night in the ER, a night colder and darker than any other. I had volunteered to help “clean up,” though I wasn’t assigned to her room. Because I could see my coworkers bustling, see that to them she was just another patient—or maybe they just carried on, like emergency workers have to do. But to me she was something else. She wasn’t just another patient. She was special, she was lovely, she was loved, even though she didn’t know it.
As my fingers zipped up the bag that was wrapped around Somebody’s Daughter, they stopped below her face. There was this determination that someone should remember her. I wondered about her… what did she like to do? What was her favorite flavor ice cream? What kind of music did she like? Why couldn’t she believe that she was worthy of love? I prayed God would take her soul straight to heaven. I thought of the women in my own life who’ve struggled to believe. I thought of the many times that old enemy Not-Good-Enough has come knocking on my own door. And for the first time in six years of Emergency and Trauma nursing, I didn’t try to stop my own tears. They fell, wetting my stethoscope, and onto my rounded belly, where grew my own little girl – healthy, safe, immune still to the troubles of the world and to the worries of womanhood.
One hand on my aching belly, and the other on the bag, I committed Somebody’s Daughter’s face to memory. Normally I would look away quickly. Normally I would never, ever, look straight in the eyes. But that night I studied them, beautiful and gray. Studied the thin nose. Studied the hollow cheeks. And I smoothed her brittle hair back from her forehead the way I think her mother might have done if she’d been there.
Where were her parents? My charge nurse and the police chief had been on the phone and the radio for the last hour trying to locate them.
I don’t know who they were. If they came to the ER that night, I never saw them.
Maybe they were good people. Maybe they really loved their daughter. Maybe they just didn’t notice her suffering. Or maybe they didn’t know how to help.
I finished zipping the bag, turned off the light in the room. De-gloved, washed hands and dried my tears. Time to get back to my other patients. But how to get through the rest of the night? The longest four hours of the shift, the pre-dawn hours, how to get through my tasks, after looking in her eyes, after feeling her heart?
One patient needed morphine and another needed splinting. As I walked out of the room a hand fell to my belly out of habit, and I looked down and thought, This one will be loved. This one will know. And the thought carried me through those last hours of that dark shift: this one will be loved.
And she is.
The little girl who grew in my belly, safe and sound that night, is now four years old. Her curls and giggles follow her everywhere she goes. We gave her a name that means this: She who is worthy to be loved. And I pray every day that she knows it, she and her brother and her sister.
The kind that says: you are loved just as you are.
And so I’ll whisper it to my daughters and my son: You are special. You are loved. You are enough, just as you are. You are mine.
When I close my eyes, I can still see her face. But when I open them, I see three little faces looking back at me. They belong to hearts that want to be loved, deserve to be loved, will be loved. So I put down the memories of yesterday to pick up the task of loving the ones who mean the most today.
To my three blessings: You are special. You are loved. You are enough, just as you are. You are mine, and I will love you forever, no matter what. And I pray that when you lay your heads down on your pillows tonight, you know one thing.
You will be loved.