My heart began pounding as I listened to the sound of the dial tone in my ear. After three rings a woman answered groggily and uncertainly, “H-hello?”
“Mrs. Peterson?” I asked. My voice trembled slightly. It was 2 a.m. and I’d awakened her from what I imagined had been a troubled sleep.
“This is Dr. Lickerman. I’m calling from the hospital.” I paused. “I’m calling about your husband.”
There was silence. Then a breathless, “Yes?”
“Mrs. Peterson, I’m the resident on call taking care of your husband. Your husband–your husband’s suffered a complication. You know the heart attack he came in for was very serious. A large part of his heart had stopped working. Well, Mrs. Peterson, I just don’t know how to say this to you but…your husband passed away tonight. We tried everything we could to save him but there was just too much damage to his heart. It just couldn’t keep pumping blood. I’m…really sorry. I don’t know how–I’m just really sorry. I wish I weren’t telling you this over the phone…”
A few more minutes of silence passed, and I realized she was crying. “I understand,” she said finally. “Thank you.” Then she asked, “What do I do now?”
Relief coursed through me. “There’s a hospital administrator on the line–“
“Hello,” the hospital administrator said gently.
“–he’s going to explain everything you need to do.” I paused. “Mrs. Peterson, I am just so sorry…”
“Thank you,” she said quietly. When I hung up I found my hands were literally shaking.
I was a first year resident, and this was the first time I’d ever had to tell a family member a loved one had died. It had happened in the middle of the night so I’d had no choice but to deliver the news over the phone. Not only that, but because I was covering for another resident and had only met Mr. Peterson that night after his heart had stopped and I’d been called to try to resuscitate him, his wife ended up hearing the news of his death from a total stranger. It was an experience I will never forget.