Sometimes death comes unannounced but other times it sounds a warning. Most of the time we think of such warnings as what our body is saying to us, maybe someone is having chest pains or that we know of a terminal condition which is getting worse and the doctors say that there is nothing else that they can do. Other times it appears that some people almost have a sixth sense about their impending death and leave notes or say “goodbye” to loved ones in a different way than they would normally do.
When I see or hear about the sixth sense kind of incident I find that I am intrigued. As a student of history I have read accounts where soldiers know that they will not survive a particular battle and leave things for their friends to give to loved ones. There have been times when I have had a sixth sense about what was going to happen to someone and the feeling is like you are watching something unfold in slow motion but can do nothing to stop it. A strange feeling that I’m sure some of my reads have experienced.
This story is a bit different and took place during an overnight as the “on call” chaplain at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas during my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency. Parkland is a rather large, at the time of my residency a 940 bed county hospital and Level One Trauma center. The “on call” chaplain after normal hours was the only chaplain in the hospital to cover all emergencies in the house. Usually I stationed myself in the ER area as that was the “hottest” place for ministry at any given time. I would always take a spin around our 9 ICUs but unless something was going bad on one of them would always end up back in the ER.
One night I had just finished with a situation involving a death in the ER when about 9 PM I got a page from “9 South” our General Medicine Step-Down ward. The nurse that I talked to when I returned the page said that I needed to come up because she had a patient who was convinced that they were going to die that night. I said that I would be right up and made my way up to the ward.
I got to the ward about 9:15 PM and met the nurse who further explained the situation to me while I reviewed the chart. The lady was in her mid-30s and was HIV positive. She was Baptist and her husband who was also HIV positive and in a more advanced stage of the disease had just been discharged from the hospital the day before. The lady had come in for a few day stay as she had been spiking a fever but that was under control and was scheduled to be discharged in the morning. She was not at the point of having any of the major opportunistic infections or diseases associated with full blown AIDS and her T-Cell count was good. Clinically she was stable and expected to do well for a number of years to come.
The problem was that just after shift change the patient had told the nurse that “the Lord was going to take her home tonight.” The nurse said that she had called the Medicine resident to come and speak with the lady but that the resident could not convince here that she was going to be okay and that she told both of them that she was going to die that evening and “go home and be with Jesus.”
Now for those who have never lived in the south “going home” is not like leaving the office at the end of the day. Elvis “went home” wherever that was (see “Men in Black”) and if you are talking with someone raised in the south starts talking about “going home” you better stop and clarify to make sure that they are going home to watch the Braves on television and drink a beer or if they are planning on dying. I had a grandmother who from the time that I was 5 years old kept telling that she was either “going home” or “wasn’t going to be around much longer,” of course she almost lived to be 90 and “went home” when I was 40. But I digress.
Now patently I am generally of the mind that if the numbers say that you will live I believe the numbers. I’m a baseball guy, God speaks to me through baseball and I play the percentages, it is the rational thing to do, which means that while I believe that God can intervene in situations I don’t bet on that happening. I read the chart, talk to the nurse, talk with the resident and I am convinced that this lady will walk out of the hospital in the morning.
Then I met the lady. She was sitting up in bed with her Bible open beside her on the mattress and she appeared to be very calm and there was a peaceful sense about her. She was from Jamaica and very polite and when I introduced myself to her she greeted me warmly with the accent characteristic of that island nation.
“So you are the pastor?” she asked.
I replied that I was the Chaplain and a minister and that the nurse and doctor had asked me to spend some time with her.
She then said “Ah yes, they do not believe me.” So I asked her what was going on.
She then described to me what had occurred that evening.
“You see pastor, the doctors say that I will go to my house tomorrow but I will not.” She paused and I nodded for her to go on and said “really? Tell me more.”
She continued “Pastor you see this evening Jesus came to me, he visit me and tell me that I will go and be with him tonight.”
Now I have to admit that I was skeptical but she was not acting emotional or even bothered by what she just said. I was fascinated and asked her to tell me more.
She then went on a recitation of her faith journey from the time that she was a young girl and how she frequently would sense God’s presence and hear his voice at different points in her life, how she had gotten HIV from her husband and how much it meant for her to be right with others and God. So I asked about the specifics of “why tonight?”
Calmly she explained. “The doctors tell me that I will be well and go home tomorrow. They tell me that I am in good condition, but that does not matter to me because Jesus told me today that he will take me home to be with him….tonight.” Her tone was as if this was a regular every day occurrence and her face was radiant. She continued “I love Jesus and know that he will not lie to me so I know that I will be with him tonight.” Her faith was touching and powerful in its simplicity and the amount of trust that she showed even to a message that she believed to be from Jesus that was completely different than the news of the doctors.
After our conversation which lasted about 30 minutes with me probing her faith, asking what she understood about her condition, talking about family which seemed to me for her was a conversation where she was tying up the loose ends of her life and that I was the person that she was taking the time to share them with. As we closed she asked me if I would pray with her and give her a blessing which I did. She thanked me, reached out and asked for a hug and she embraced me weakly let go, and thanked me again. I was moved by this, still not convinced that Jesus would take her home, but not disbelieving her either. When I was done I charted my visit, wrapped things up with the resident and the nurse and went back down to ER where more carnage was waiting.
About 2:30 AM my pager went off and it was 9 South calling. I returned the call and the nurse that I had talked with earlier was on the line.
“Chaplain, please come quick, I went in to check her vitals and she is dead!” I put on my best calm voice and said “Who is dead?” The nurse nearly in a panic said “the lady that said that God was going to take her home, she died.” I said okay I’ll be right up and went up as quickly as I could and got to the ward to find the nurse pacing anxiously outside the door of the patient’s room. I asked if the nurse if she was okay, meaning her and not the now deceased patient and the nurse replied that she was upset by the death because the lady should not be dead and that she didn’t understand how the patient could calmly know that she was going to die. Now the nurse was not a southerner unless it was the south part of the Indian Subcontinent. Relatively new to Texas and the south she was not as attuned to some of the religious and cultural aspects of either the south or south Jamaica. After helping the nurse calm down I met the resident who was in the room looking perplexed and as I walked in he said she shouldn’t be dead. I just said to him “that sometimes it’s just someone’s time even if the numbers don’t say so.” He said “Yeh, I know, but this was really freaky she told me that she was going to die tonight and she did.” I did concur that it was a bit on the unusual side but that we couldn’t discount what she believed especially since she had been correct.
As the resident went to finish up paperwork I looked at the woman. It looked like she had simply fallen asleep her Bible was on her lap and opened to Revelation around the 21st chapter and although I cannot be sure exactly what she was reading can only imagine that it was this verse “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3b-5 NRSV) This dear woman had passed away, gone home looking forward to a place where whatever tears or sorrows she had would be wiped away.
I closed her Bible, placed her hands together over it and prayed a prayer of commendation before pulling the bed sheet over her face and body. On leaving the room I spent a bit more time with the nurse who was beginning to gather herself after this unusual death. A couple of hours later I would escort the body of this woman to our morgue accompanied by the nurse and a LVN. As we rode the elevator down we talked a bit more and as we made the walk down the long and empty basement corridor to the morgue we did so in silence. Once I had admitted the body and locked the door the two nurses left to head back to the 9th floor and I took the chart and other paperwork up to our office where our decedent affairs clerk would complete the death certificate. I thought how unusual this case was as I sat for a while in the office. I had heard of similar things but had never seen something like this before where the person in question made such a claim and was right defying the numbers that said she would walk out of the hospital.
With that I wish you a good night.