By William Markiewicz

In the darkness of silence power and helplessness face each other. Let's scream for those who cannot.


(Sculpture in Geneva consecrated to the memory of those who inspire pity -- drawing, WM)

When I came to Canada, I worked as a hospital orderly and I witnessed the dying moments of one patient. All the symptoms of agony were very advanced. His hands and legs were blue, eyes unblinking and glassy and he breathed through wide open mouth with a raspy sound. I asked a passing nurse why someone didn't moisten his lips and mouth which must have been dry as a bone from breathing like that for so long. She answered me categorically that, "He feels nothing anyway and the water would only choke him and hurry death."

I wasn't very convinced and when I found myself alone with him, I took a small Q tip, wet it, and began to moisten his lips. I wasn't really sure if he felt anything but one could imagine the complete dryness of his mouth and throat, and the lost but still continuing fight for life was tragic to observe as it is in every dying person. After a certain time, the patient, who'd had no reflexes, suddenly put his lips into a sucking position. So he did react. It was a great surprise. How easy it is to conclude for somebody else that "he feels nothing!"

Years later, coincidentally in the same hospital, I visited a friend, a World War II veteran. He was unconscious with almost the same symptoms as the first patient I described, and there was a gurgling sound in his chest. The nurse told me that too much mucous had collected deep in his trachea and pumping it would be just a useless torture for him - if he were able to feel anything. Remembering my other experience, I took a cotton swab and put water, drop by drop, into his open mouth, talking to him meanwhile, not knowing if he heard: "John, breathe through your nose. Keep your mouth closed because you will be thirsty and no one will know it." He soon started sucking and began breathing silently and normally, (where had the mucous gone?). The difference was so striking I was afraid the moment of death had come. But no, suddenly his eyes, which had been glassy and dead, lit up. There was the light of life charged with his character, energy and intelligence. I will never forget it because I assisted with something that goes beyond the edge of understanding. I assisted in his return and again I was sorry there was no doctor with me to see it and draw some conclusion. John looked at me completely conscious. I gave him more water and he sucked it greedily. I asked him if it was good (the water) and he answered, "good." When I said I must go he shrugged his shoulder and raised an eyebrow as if to say, "Too bad."

Next day I couldn't visit but I heard that he had a good day and the nurses could not believe the improvement. When I arrived the following evening he relapsed; he was immobile, breathing heavily, but through his nose. He kept his mouth closed. So he had heard me, even though two days before he'd seemed unaware of my words, and he took his precautions. His eyes were open and unblinking, all the parts melted into one dark undefined stain, but he seemed sort of conscious. He communicated total sadness through eyes which, logically, should reflect nothing. When I asked him if I could help him, it seemed to me that he moved his head 'no.' He died a few hours later.

St. Augustine taught that we should give the tiny children to drink. An extraordinary human being, he was one of the few who remembered the period of babyhood and mainly he remembered terrible thirst. May I permit myself to add: to the last moment, give to drink to the dying.


I had to keep a terminally ill relative company several nights in hospital. Because of her critical condition, the hospital generously permitted me to stay. Which hospital it was is not important to the story.

Because of her indescribable suffering, the attention of the normal nursing staff wasn't sufficient. My help wasn't enough either and I had to get some sleep too. Therefore, I applied to a nursing agency for a night nurse.

The nurse was to start at 11:30 pm. By midnight, no one had shown up. I went to the floor desk to see if my application had been passed on. A woman in nurse's uniform raised her head and replied, "I have to look at the patient's chart - don't I?" I asked, "Who are you?"
"The night nurse," she replied.
Clearly I had to guess, since she hadn't let me know she'd arrived.

Well after 12 am she came to the room. The sick person asked to be taken to the washroom. Usually I took her there in the wheelchair. I always tried not to call the nurses unless absolutely necessary, but now we had a special nurse so I let her do it. I saw with horror and too late that she'd put under the sick woman a measuring recipient soiled with the fresh feces of another patient! "Don't you see it's dirty?" I asked.
"I'm not on the maintenance staff," she answered.

I called the floor nurse who cleaned the recipient, but anyway, too late for my relative. I thought, "If she survives her present condition, some infection may get her. As the "special" night nurse put her back to bed with my help, she left one slipper on her foot and threw the other onto the bed. Later as she stood near the washroom, I asked her if she'd mind closing the door. She slammed it without closing it.

At this late hour I decided to endure this animal nurse until the morning. I dozed off and woke at 4 am. My relative was agitated and semi-conscious with extreme pain. The nurse wasn't in the room.

I went to the desk - and there she was. I asked for help and she answered, "I am on my break." Another, more concerned nurse, came to help me change her position and give comfort. I remained alone with her until about 5:30 am. I was tired but happy that the 'helping' nurse was away. She finally fell asleep and moments later the nurse presented herself - to wake the patient up and give her a wash!

I said, "Miss, she also needs a break. She's been awake and in pain all this time." The nurse began to yell that I was interfering with her work and, "Sir! You don't need a nurse's help!"

I replied, "Ma'm! A nurse doesn't place the sick person on somebody else's shit! A nurse has empathy with the sick person, especially the very sick. A nurse doesn't scream over the patient's head." She replied that she didn't need my money, but she didn't go away, oh no . . .! After all, her "work" shift was practically over.

I had the impression that she wasn't just dumb and brutal, but sought deliberately to harm the sick person. There was hatred in her behaviour. It was enough to observe how she handled the patient and later in the morning my relative whispered that "the nurse was so rough she combed me like a horse." It probably happened while I slept.

The above story could happen anywhere that helpless ones face, in loneliness, sadistic, incompetent "helpers." It can happen to the very sick, the very old - or very young. It can happen anywhere fundamental culture and human values are lacking. How many of the most respectable institutions serve as hiding places for the worst. What kind of psychological test could be applied to keep those who don't fit out of the healing professions? There are very sophisticated tests for every profession but the "charitable" one. We just don't think enough that tomorrow it could be one of us on the "weak" list.

"Snake Man", woodcut, WM

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