Final Words: Reflections of a Forensic Pathologist


In the Kitchen

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The stainless steel of the refrigerator door felt cool against my forehead. My heart hammered. My throat seized up. I tried to quiet my sobs as my breath came in staccato bursts. My eyes squeezed shut. 

Marty, a man of 25, turned on the light in the kitchen.

“Mom, what’s wrong?” my son said. I turned to him; tears spilled down my cheeks. He looked like he had just finished working out—dressed in a sleeveless t-shirt and running shorts, his hair plastered to his forehead.

“I just can’t go on a ventilator again,” I said. “Please let me die at home.” 

Spring of 2020 had arrived in New York with a tsunami of COVID-19. Joshua and Marty returned to the family home to quarantine. David already lived in town, in an apartment nearby with his girlfriend, Kelsey. Though we were only able to visit with him through the glass doors to the porch. 

This closeness reminded me of my former convalescence. Everyone had been beside me then too.

Marty approached and put his arms around me, pulling my head to his chest. When he was six years old, he barely reached my elbow. I called him my little peanut. He grew and I shrunk. My tears wet his shirt.

“I know, Mom, I was there.”

It had happened eight years earlier. One second, I was breathing, and the next I wasn’t. Terror had filled me as I counted my own respirations right before they stopped. A cytokine and toxic storm (like the effects of Coronavirus) had swept through my body. Without sophisticated medical intervention, I would have died. Even with it, the outcome had been far from certain. 

“It’s going to be okay, Mom. We’re all home and being safe.” 

I didn’t feel that. No one knew how the coronavirus was spread—aerosol or fomites? Was it safe to go to the store? To receive mail? Why did the CDC say masks don’t help? In my job I had worn N-95s all the time. They protected me from inhaling dangerous pathogens. Why should that be any different with this virus?

During my prior hospitalization, Marty had found comfort in data. By following the ups and downs of the machines, he interpreted whether I was doing better or worse. As we stood there next to the refrigerator, he reminded me how I defied the mortality figures back then. Ninety percent of people with the same circumstances I had were slotted to die. I had survived. 

“You’re indestructible,” Marty said. 

There had been no glorious white light or heavenly chorus, no cherubim to welcome me through the pearly gates, only darkness and unending night. My coma hadn’t been a romantic slumber. My oblivion was a hellish nightmare. I did not want to re-enter that purgatory.

I glanced up as Joshua plodded to the kitchen for a snack. He had been reading a text message on his phone but upon seeing Marty and me, immediately set it down on the counter. Without speaking, Joshua joined the hug. He relied on mindfulness for calm, an awareness of the moment. The three of us gathered in embrace. My sons infused me with their strength. Our breathing synchronized.

The aroma of coconut from Joshua’s recently shampooed hair enveloped me. I took in the sweet tang of Marty’s sweat. My heart rate slowed. I swallowed tears. Warmth emanated from their skin in a rejuvenating aura. My muscles gained power as I held onto my sons.

Uncertainty swirled in the world outside. Confidence collected inside. If my next breath was my last, this love would be enough.

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