Our Stories: A Story for These Times...

By Susan L. Schoenbeck, MSN, RN. Published in Green Valley News on April 14th, 2020

Our Stories: A Story for These Times...

It is often a mystery to us how we have come to know and believe in certain things. Beliefs are like guests who come up to your door. They come in only if you open the door and invite them in.

I was a Federal nursing home investigator called out on a case where the evening before a patient had died accidentally by getting her nightgown caught in the side rail. At times like these, when unintended deaths occur, “somber” is not a powerful enough word to describe the circulating emotions. Each staff member is second guessing themselves, wondering if there was something they could have done to prevent the incident.

The deceased must have been trying to get out of bed, when a tie on her gown got caught within a mechanism that controlled the bars on the side rail. She literally hung her body when the tie caught within the lever. Her body was not tall enough to reach the floor to allow her to stand and thus, avoid suffocation.

But this was not the whole story and I will tell you why. At the end of the day, my partner and I were gathering up our papers when a nursing assistant asked if she could speak to us. She was just coming onto her shift and had heard about the unfortunate death. Since death and dying was my specialty, the other inspector said, “Sure, tell Sue your story.”

I sat down with the nursing assistant who described what she was doing the evening the death occurred:

“I work the 4 pm to 8 pm shift. I was just coming back from an activity with the patient whose room is directly across the room from the woman who died. One of my duties is to get my patients ready for bed before I leave my shift.

“The patient I was bringing back to her room has a pleasant dementia. She is always smiling and cooperative. When I wheeled her back to her room at a little before eight, she was in a chipper mood. I was surprised when she suddenly balked at letting me turn the wheelchair into her room. She said that she wanted to stay in the hallway and watch the angels. I questioned, ‘The angels?’ The patient pointed to the ceiling above the doorway of the room of the patient who hung and died.

“The patient with dementia told me clearly that she wanted to stay up to watch the angels. She said, ‘See the angels …over there by the light.’ I tried to reason with her. Although I did not want to disregard her perception, I did not believe she was really looking at angels. I looked toward the place where she stared. I did not see any light other than the regular hallway lighting. I encouraged her to comply with my request. I cajoled her. I told her I would get in trouble if I did not get her in bed. But, she would not budge.

“I couldn’t make the patient go into her room so I left my shift at 8 pm with the patient sitting forward in her chair her chin resting on her elbows propped up on her knees. She sat in the hallway smiling broadly and gazing at the ceiling near the doorway across the hall. I said ‘Good night. See you tomorrow.’ The patient disregarded me. Instead, she waved her hand and called out, ‘Oh, joy. Oh, joy.’

“When I got to work today, I heard about what happened last night and I felt a need to tell someone. So here I am. The other inspector seemed to think you would understand. Do you?”

The nursing assistant asked me if the patient with dementia could have actually seen something that was not apparent to her. I assured the nursing assistant that there are times when patients tell us they can see into a world beyond ours. Nurses describe patients with dementia perceiving things ordinary people may not. It is as if the patient with dementia is in another space in time. Nurses recount many times hearing the dying talking to people they describe as angels in heaven.

So, is the story believable? I think so. Evidence is on the side of angels being with people as they die. Research reveals people report seeing, hearing and feeling the movement of air in a room (described as from the “wings of angels”) around the time of a loved one’s death.

This story reinforces that no one really dies alone. Angels may help us with the crossover into heaven. Angels also comfort those left behind like the patient with dementia.

People come into our lives for a reason. Sometimes, it is to bring us knowledge or insight we could not find on our own. The nursing assistant let out a sigh of relief, “I wanted to believe,” she said. “Now I can.”

“Our Stories” is an occasional feature about the adventures of Green Valley residents. Email your stories to letters@gvnews.com

Schoenbeck is author of many peer-review national and international journal articles and books. She continues to volunteer by teaching nursing students with English as a second language.