This is a story that both influenced me personally
and shaped the culture of the hospital where I worked in the early
One morning on medical rounds I lingered with the medical team at
Room 1. It was nothing unusual. A 64-year-old man was hospitalized
for observation and was in traction after an automobile accident.
I would have thought nothing of it except that a nurse leaned over
to me and whispered, “His wife was also in the accident and
died in the emergency room. Apparently, she called out to him for
help, but he was pinned by the car and couldn’t move to help
her. He has said very little since then.”
She asked if I could try to talk with him. As a clinical nurse specialist,
it was not exactly my role, but I stayed behind as the team went
to the next room.
I entered, gently leaned over the railing and introduced myself
as Mr. Bradley stared at the ceiling. In my gentlest voice I asked,
“Is there anything we can do for you?”
It was a meaningless rhetorical question, I knew, but I hoped he
would understand the gesture. He nodded. There was something we
could do for him. I was surprised.
“Are you uncomfortable? Would you like me to call your nurse?”
He shook his head. The guessing game had begun, and I did not know
where to go next. I waited, but he continued staring silently at
the ceiling. Knowing about his wife’s death but not wanting
to address it directly, I asked him if he needed something of a
psychological nature. He shook his head again. I waited, carefully
considering the next question.
“Is there something spiritual we can do for you?”
Still staring at the ceiling he spoke to nobody in particular, and
yet to everybody, “Yes, you can bring back my wife.”
I felt a jolt in my stomach. It was the one thing I could not do.
I leaned over the railing desperately trying to imagine what to
say next. As I drew closer to the scruffy face and tired eyes, I
noticed how old he looked for 64, and how utterly defeated he appeared
for a man who had survived. As my face neared Mr. Bradley’s,
his unshaven stubble reminded me of my father’s and how, as
a child, I used to rub my hand over it. Suddenly this man was no
longer a stranger, and I was no longer a nurse. What came next surprised
I whispered, “If you thought it might be possible to see the
body of your deceased wife and say goodbye, would you want the opportunity?”
He turned, and his eyes stared directly into mine. Without blinking
he replied, “Yes.”
As I left Mr. Bradley’s room, I saw his physician walk into
another patient’s room. I followed him and asked if we could
speak when he was finished. He said he would not have time later
but could talk right then (in front of his other patient). Even
though I suggested it would be better to talk outside the room,
he insisted we discuss it there.
I mention this not to emphasize resistances, but to illustrate how
difficult it can be to address certain aspects of hospital culture.
Because of this physician’s insistence—and my fear that
it was the only chance I would have—I smiled tenuously at
the female patient he was visiting and said, “Mr. Bradley
in Room 1 wants to see his wife.”
Suddenly realizing the implications, the physician asked me to wait
outside the room. Once outside, he went from being horrified to
devising an unusual solution. He said that if I could stop Mrs.
Bradley’s cremation he would arrange for a mirror to be placed
over Mr. Bradley’s bed so he could see her body. The physician
moved on to his next patient without another word. I made a phone
A female voice answered the phone, and I explained that we wanted
Mrs. Bradley’s body sent back to the hospital. The woman said
that the body was about to be cremated and that my request was unusual—in
fact, such a request had never been made before.
The rest of the conversation covered various difficulties, but one
thing stands out in my mind. The woman said something about the
body belonging to them. Two images immediately came to mind. One
was of a woman calling out to her husband, not knowing he was pinned
by the car. Another was of a woman alone in a box awaiting cremation.
With confident voice I suggested that the body more accurately belonged
to Mr. Bradley or to God, rather than to her or to me. Without further
discussion, the woman said she would do what she could to stop the
cremation and return the body to the hospital.
This is the end of my personal part of this story. The rest of the
medical staff took over. Mrs. Bradley’s body was returned
to the hospital. While the mirror was set up for Mr. Bradley to
see her, the physician discharged him early so that he could attend
the funeral to say goodbye. Mr. Bradley changed his mind about having
her body cremated. Instead, after the funeral, Mrs. Bradley was
After my one conversation with Mr. Bradley, I never saw him again.
This story has a beginning and a middle, but I am not sure about
the end. I thought it ended for me when I heard that Mr. Bradley
attended his wife’s funeral, but when I’m asked to give
a personal perspective of why I am interested in religion and health,
I become more aware of how transformative his story has been for
In other words, being Mr. Bradley’s advocate for 30 minutes
has changed me; it is still changing me. And certainly, in relation
to the hospital, the story did not end with his discharge. It prompted
further discussions of how to more comprehensively approach death/
dying and other spiritual issues as a medical team. Since that time,
a comprehensive program of education around spiritual issues has
been developed at this hospital. This story has been taped and is
now used as one of the teaching tools of this educational program.
As for Mr. Bradley … I suspect that attending his wife’s
funeral was another beginning, a beginning defined by him as a spiritual
version of this article appeared in the April/May 2003 issue of
The Academic Exchange.