A Will to Live
by Liz Gwyn, MSN, RN
I was new to the unit and for weeks I had dreaded this day. I paused outside the room of a burn victim in Intensive Care Burn Unit who tried to kill herself eight months before by driving head-on into a tractor-trailer. I knew at some point the night shift charge nurse would assign me to care for Cassi and today was the day.
Third-degree burns covered 90 percent of her body. Most people who have injuries this severe don’t survive. Cassi endured multiple surgeries in an attempt to graft some skin to her raw muscles. Deadly infections postponed scheduled surgeries numerous times. Now an invalid, she depended on others for her every need. Each time anyone attempted to turn her or clean her wounds, she cried out in pain. Yet Cassi hung on for a reason we couldn’t comprehend.
And I would be the one to find out why.
I learned from the other nurses that at the time of her wreck, Cassi was a twenty-eight-year-old wife and mother of three. She teetered on the edge of despair after losing her job as a secretary and hearing her husband confess to an affair, then ask for a divorce. Alcohol and antidepressants became her best friends.
The team of nurses caring for her felt Cassi would’ve been better off had she not survived the crash. But she did. At the scene, paramedics revived her despite her horrific condition. And now she lay badly burned in the room behind the glass door in front of me, two states away from her home, family, and friends, with a secret that tormented her daily. I gathered my courage, said a little prayer, and walked through the door.
“Hey Cassi,” I said, still trying to gather more courage to face her. “My name is Liz. I’ll be taking care of you today.”
She looked at me with a level of pain that broke my heart. In all my years of nursing, I’ve never seen so much fear and terror in one person’s eyes.
I was having trouble myself. The sight of her was almost too much for me to handle. I wanted to run. Her body stiff from the neck down, she could only move her upper extremities, neck, mouth, and eyes. Her upper extremities looked more skeletal than human. Paper-thin, lacey-scarred skin stretched to cover her arms, hands, and fingers.
I couldn’t imagine having the will to live in such a horrible condition. It struck me as odd she didn’t have a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate order), particularly since she had tried to take her own life.
Trying to mask my own pain of caring for Cassi for the first time, I systematically assessed her intravenous fluids and the central line in the right side of her chest. As I continued my assessment she flapped her arms in a dramatic fashion. When she caught my full attention, she mouthed three words that I couldn’t quite make out because of the tracheotomy in her throat.
“What?” I asked, my pulse quickening. With the fear and anxiety in her eyes escalating, she mouthed the three words again.
Frustrated I said, “I can’t understand, Cassi.” She pointed to a pad and pencil. I retrieved both and placed them in her left hand.
With all her strength, Cassi took the pad and pencil and scribbled, “I can’t breathe.” As soon as she finished writing, her breathing stopped.
I was terrified. My mind locked up. I stared at her for a moment as I tried to get the gears in my head to start working again.
Desperate, I walked to the unit doorway and gasped, “I need help in here!”
At last the charge nurse, not realizing the gravity of the situation, wandered into Cassi’s room. She immediately grabbed the breathing bag (ambu bag) from the hanger on the wall and began resuscitating Cassi and called for more help.
It took four of us—the charge nurse, a nursing assistant, respiratory therapist, and me—to save Cassi.
But I had a greater concern and burden: the condition of her soul. Nine years earlier, I wasted the opportunity to share the gospel with a patient. I never wanted to make that mistake again.
It took us about fifteen minutes to get Cassi stabilized. Within a few more minutes, she could communicate with me again. When I was sure she could think clearly, I asked if she believed in Jesus Christ. She told me no.
I told her Jesus died on the cross for her sins and rose again on the third day so she could be free and go to heaven when her time came to die. I asked if she wanted to know Him. A river of tears streamed down her scarred face as she nodded. Then, along with me, she mouthed a prayer of salvation. As she completed the prayer, Cassi indicated she wanted to tell me something, but was afraid I might question her sanity.
When I assured Cassi I wouldn’t doubt her sanity or the validity of the story, she began writing it out. “When I ran into the 18-wheeler all I remember is being in an old cage with hideous creatures all around me. Tormenting and laughing.”
Now I understood why she refused to die for those eight months. She lived in constant fear of going back to the cage should she die again.
After sharing her experience in the cage, Cassi’s countenance changed. When I cared for her, she always asked me to read from the Bible. Her favorite verse was Isaiah 40:31 (KJV): “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Although her physical body was still miserable, her spirit had changed.
Two weeks later, Cassi gave up the fight. She chose eternity with Jesus instead of a life of constant suffering. She let go.
Gwyn, L. (2012). Amazing Stories of Life After Death. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House.
Liz Gwyn, author of, Amazing Stories of Life After Death, received her MSN in 2009 from Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. A gifted speaker, Liz has close to twenty years in professional and lay ministry. She excels in communicating the Word of God to eager listeners, but has a heart to reach the lost. With a degree in nursing, she also understands the deep emotional pain many endure—spiritually and physically.