Even after all her years as a nurse and everything that Mr Wilkinson had told her about her husband’s condition Kath still wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted her when she and Danny entered the ITU. Simon Shaughnessy lay still and silent connected to a vast array of life support equipment. Tubes ran from his face, wires ran from his chest and the machines carried out their work with a gentle hum and a monotonous bleeping. Kath stood over him, holding onto Danny’s arm for support, staring at her husband with a sense of disbelief.
After a short time Mr Wilkinson made an awkward coughing sound to try to attract their attention. Kath looked over to him and noticed that a woman a few years younger than herself had joined him.
"Mrs Shaughnessy, Mr Shaughnessy," he greeted them, "this is Dr Crowther, she’s the senior registrar here in ITU and if you have no further questions for me I shall leave you in her capable hands." He glanced at them to see if that would be all right, they nodded that it was.
Dr Anne Crowther smiled a smile that she hoped would put the Shaughnessy’s at ease, but in reality neither of them particularly noticed her expression. She was a excellent doctor of huge potential, all her reports said as much, but she hated dealing with the relatives, she never knew where to put herself. She paused before speaking in the hope that they would ask her something directly and break the ice. They said nothing.
"Um…I take it Mr Wilkinson has explained the severity of Mr Shaughnessy’s condition?" She enquired. Again they nodded silently, though both of their eyes were focused on Simon.
"So do you have any questions for me?" she ventured. Danny slowly lifted his eye line to meet her gaze.
"What are his chances? Honestly, is he going to get better?" Anne’s shoulders sagged involuntarily. These were the cases she hated dealing with the most, when no matter how many times the situation was explained the relatives didn’t, or wouldn’t, understand. She allowed herself a second to collect her thoughts and decide on the best way to deliver the news again.
"As I’m sure Mr Wilkinson has explained to you, your father sustained multiple internal injuries in the accident, practically every major system in his body has shut itself down, including his circulatory and respiratory systems. At the moment the machines that you can see around his bedside are doing all his breathing for him and keeping the blood pumping around his body…"
"But is he going to get better?" Danny interrupted.
"As I was saying, the machines are keeping him alive, but there is some considerable doubt about whether he will ever remain consciousness or be able to breathe on his own." She took a deep breath and tried to gauge the reaction of the pair in front of her. The wife was still staring at her husband and for all Anne knew wasn’t listening to a word she was saying. The son had a look of pained concentration on his face as he mentally grappled with what he was being told. She decided it was time to lay the facts on the table.
"Mr Shaughnessy," she started, realising that directing her conversation at Kath was somewhat pointless, "I don’t want to give you false hope. The chances of your father waking up and being able to leave this hospital, even in the distant future, are practically zero. What I must ask you, and your mother as his next of kin, is whether you wish us to continue to actively prolong his life or whether we should withdraw treatment." She waited as what she said sunk into the young man before her.
"You want us to say that you can pull the plug! Let him die! Mum, are you listening?" Anne watched Danny’s face change colour, turning an unhealthy purple as he fought the urge to scream or cry or both.
"I heard," she answered without looking up, "I heard."
Mike paced across the kitchen floor of his flat as he waited for the kettle to boil for the umpteenth time that night. By now he’d had so much coffee that he couldn’t have got to sleep of he’d wanted to. But he didn’t want to, he still hadn’t heard from Kath and missing her phone call was not an option. The kettle boiled and he refilled his mug, stirring the steaming water in with the coffee granules and enjoying the warm odour that drifted up to his face.
He sat on one of the stools at the breakfast bar and clasped a tight hold around the mug, staring into the dark liquid as though it had the magic powers needed to answer all his problems. Of course it could do no such thing and instead Mike’s mind drifted back to the earlier events of the evening. More specifically: that kiss.
He searched among the memories of that kiss for some meaning, some idea about what caused it, and where it was heading. Had they not been interrupted he wondered if things might have gone further, but as much as that thought excited him, it also filled him with dread.
From the moment that Mike had met Kath Shaughnessy he had been attracted to her, but he had also known that she had a strong devotion to her family and her faith which was all but unshakeable. At one point she had confided in him that not only was Simon the only man she’d ever slept with; he was the only man she’d ever kissed. It was information that made their own kiss all the more important, and all the more unfathomable. Why, after so many years of faithful marriage would she suddenly betray Simon? And what would happen now? He thought back to his own affair with Rachel and tried to recall his feelings at the time, but it didn’t help.
He took a sip of the scolding coffee. He hated waiting around and feeling of uselessness that accompanied it. He wanted answers to the many questions that buzzed around his head but none where forthcoming. He took another sip of the coffee and returned to pacing the floor.
Kath and Danny sat in the comfortable but impersonal relative’s room adjacent to the ITU and let their drinks go cold. For the third time in as many minutes Danny asked his question.
"So what are we going to do?" Kath ceased chewing on her thumbnail for long enough to give the same answer she had given the previous two times.
"I don’t know, love" she shook her head almost imperceptibly as she spoke.
"Danny I don’t know!" She interrupted him cradling her head in her hands. Danny stayed silent and looked apologetic and slightly uncomfortable. Kath sighed.
"I’m sorry for snapping love, it’s just…" She trailed off and looked at him meaningfully, they both understood the situation.
"I reckon Kate and Rob should be here soon" Danny announced a few seconds later.
"Probably, they should be here before we start deciding anything." she replied. Telling her other son and daughter that their dad was at death’s door was arguably the hardest thing that Kath had ever had to do and made her realise all the more how strong Danny had had to be when he told her. She reached across the sofa to where he sat and took his hand in hers, giving it a warm squeeze. Again the silence descended between them, as each became lost in their thoughts. It was several minutes before Danny volunteered to speak.
"Mum, if Dad is definitely not going to get better… and they can do tests and stuff to find out, can’t they? Well if it’s for definite…maybe we should turn off the life support machine?" He had avoided looking directly into her eyes as he spoke, but as he finished he looked up with a worried, expectant expression.
"Let’s just wait until your brother and sister get here, eh Danny love?" she replied.
It was only fair that the decision should be made as a family, but secretly or perhaps subconsciously Kath knew that it was a decision that she didn’t want to make and so was putting off. All her life she had believed first and foremost in the preservation of life at all costs. It was partly why she’d become a nurse, to save lives, not to terminate them, and the thought of letting her own husband die was abhorrent to her. But even as she thought that, her medical training told her that to prolong his life under such circumstances, when there was no chance of recovery and when he might well be in intense pain, threatened to change her mind. Either choice seemed both humanely right and morally wrong, and it was silently tearing her apart.
"I need some fresh air." She said standing suddenly and slipping her coat on.
"Do you want me to come with you?"
"No, I’ll be fine. You stay here. And if there’s any change in his condition, I’ll just be in the hospital forecourt, OK?"
"OK" She bent down and kissed his forehead, deftly wiping away a tear that only a mother would have been able to see form in the corner of his eye, then walked out of the room.
Kath sat on an old wooden bench that was set against the outside wall of the A&E department and stared up into the night sky. The built up city lights obscured all but the very brightest of the stars. She thought back to her childhood and remembered one night when her father had taken her and her brother camping in a nearby forest. They had lain on blankets out side of their tent, next to a blazing camp fire and she had asked in the innocent way that children do: ‘if God lives in Heaven, and Heaven is in the sky, then where is it?’ Her father, unwilling to get into a deep theological conversation with his six year old daughter, had pointed to the brightest star in the sky and told her that that was were Heaven was. As she sat outside of the hospital, some forty years later she fixed her sights on that same star and prayed for the strength to help her make the right decision.
She was still sat in that same spot as the sun began to rise over the city. The changing colours of the sky as it did so gently brought back a memory of a slightly different skyline and a time when she felt warm and safe. A time that felt ever so long ago, though in reality only a matter of hours had passed. Her tired mind, exhausted from a night thinking about Simon’s condition, was glad at the opportunity for a happier thought and before Kath even realised what she was thinking, she was thinking about Mike.
Moving almost as if she were on auto-pilot she walked back into the hospital, through reception and to the payphone that was bolted to the wall. She slipped in her twenty pence and dialled his number. After a few rings the phone was picked up and Mike’s familiar, warm, though tired sounding voice floated down the line.
"Hello, Mike Barratt speaking."
"Mike, it’s me, Kath" As she spoke her emotions took over and her voice trembled. On the other end of the line Mike wished he were there with her.
"What’s happening, where are you? …Kath, are you all right?"
"No, I don’t think I am. Simon’s in a coma, on a ventilator and the doctor thinks…the doctor thinks that he isn’t going to make it." The tremble turned into a fully blown sobbing fit.
"Oh Kath I’m so sorry." He said, knowing as he did so how pathetic his words sounded. He waited patiently as the agonising sound of her crying subsided before talking again.
"Do you know what you’re going to do?"
"The doctor says we should consider turning off the ventilator, and I think Danny agrees, but I don’t know if I can. It would be like killing him, wouldn’t it?"
"But if he’s not going to recover, surely it would be better to end his suffering?"
"Maybe… But it’s still tantamount to murder…"
"I don’t think it is Kath, I don’t think that you really believe it is either, do you?"
"I don’t know, I don’t know anything anymore, everything has been turned upside down!" He could hear her building herself up into hysterics and longed to be able to calm her down, to say something to soothe her fears but he couldn’t think of anything that could possibly help.
"Oh Kath, I wish I was there with you" he sighed. Down the phone he heard the sound of her semi-stifled sobbing stop.
"Kath, Kath are you still there? KATH!" He called.
Kath held the phone away from her face as though it was offensive to her ear. What was she thinking of, ringing Mike? Mike: the man who she had been kissing as her husband had been rushed into resus. And now Simon was just upstairs, fighting for his life and she was on the phone to another man. She could hear Mike’s voice emanating from the receiver as he called out to her more and more frantically. She brought it back to her ear.
"Mike, I shouldn’t have called you." She said quietly.
"Kath, what’s going on? What do you mean?"
"I have to go." She hung up and rested her head on the cold metal of the phone. As she did so a nurse came up behind her.
"Excuse me, are you all right? Do you need a doctor?" Kath grunted at the irony of the statement.
"No." She said straightening herself up.
"Is there anything that I can get you?" The nurse asked gently.
"No… Actually, do you have a chapel here?"
"Oh yes, it’s just down there, turn left and follow the signs." Kath tried her best to smile appreciatively.
"Thank you." She said and wandered off.
Go to Part Six