Beyond the zero

August 20, 2008

In 20 years working in acute care hospitals, as a porter in England and as a nurse in England and Australia, I’ve seen upwards of 20 human corpses, and been witness to a dozen or so deaths.

I’ve seen bodies with skin so taut and white against the bed linen they looked almost translucent, and others where the blood has pooled in the folds and divided the body into a yellow-grey upper level of face and chest and belly and knees, and a ravaged purple bruise of a lower level, of shoulders and back and buttocks and heels.

I’ve seen bodies barely recognisable as such: an old man hit by a car on the motorway, one leg half out of its socket and with the foot up by his ear, both arms surreally rearticulated, intestines pressing against thinning viscera through a long horizontal gash in his abdomen; a woman whose leg had been run over and pulverised into fresh red mince by an artic cab.

I’ve seen people who, even after looking at them for several minutes, I had trouble convincing myself weren’t merely sleeping.

People have died while holding my hand.

Most of the people who I’ve watched die suffered some kind of intervention in the process – CPR, adrenaline, the elastic of an oxygen mask tangled in their hair – but only as a sort of necessary or expected constituent of where they were, rather than of what they were actually doing. ‘For the world, I count it not an inn, but an hospital; and a place not to live, but to die in,’ wrote Sir Thomas Browne.

I know that what I’ve seen is nothing compared to soldiers, or police officers, or paramedics. But it’s unique to me. I don’t believe in anything beyond the zero. But I believe in the zero.

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