June 23, 2003

Mrs. Bradley's body

Carla Gober is a registered nurse and a doctoral candidate
in the Graduate Division of Religion.

This is a story that both influenced me personally and shaped the culture of the hospital where I worked in the early 1990s.

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 even me.

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 call.

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 buried.

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 me.

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 need.

A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2003 issue of The Academic Exchange.