The Angel Of Death (1970s)

The Angel of Death

When I was training as a Cardiology Fellow in 1978 there was a sixty-odd year woman on our service who had a massive heart attack about a week before.

In that era we did not have the availability of modern treatments such as clot busting drugs or the ability to immediately balloon open and place a stent into a coronary artery, thus limiting the amount of damage to the heart. It was very frustrating to deal with situations in which large amounts of heart tissue was being damaged. We could only stand by helplessly watching it happen, and then wait later to field the resulting serious consequences of heart failure or cardiac rhythm issues; some of which were potentially lethal.

This particular woman had a rough hospital course complicated by cardiac shock, respirator support, heart failure and life threatening arrhythmias. It took a while, but she gradually improved to the point of sitting up and mobile enough to sit in a chair. The medical staff believed that the worst was over and that she would be able to go home in a few more days. Every time we rounded on her she seemed highly agitated, anxious and unfocused. She was jittery, tremulous, on sometimes delusional and was difficult to sedate; a typical scenario for what patients like her had been through.

Then on about her tenth morning in the Coronary Care Unit she greeted us with an unusual presence of serene calm, lucidity and a completely normal affect. Delighted that her affect had normalized, she seemed to have made enough progress to go to a regular floor; and while noting her placidly recovered lucidity, we told her she was only a few days away from being discharged to her home.

But we were startled by her immediate contradicting comment. She said:

  • I am not going home today. I am never going home. Today is the day that I am going to die.

We told her this was preposterous, as she had progressed so well to this point that in both jocular or condescending tones asked her how she knew this was going to happen.

She answered by telling us that early on that particular morning when she awoke from sleep, an angel had appeared who was sitting on the end of her bed. The angel told her that she was going to die on this very day, but not to worry because everything was going to be perfectly fine and that he was going to take good care of her. She had simply accepted her fate and was resigned to moving on to the afterlife.

We placated her with reassurances that this apparition surely must have been her imagination, a dream, a hallucination or somehow related to her medications, because every indicator told us she had been through the worst of her illness. The medical team then moved on to the next patient.

About six hours later, she had a cardiac arrest from which she could not be resuscitated. The doctors and nurses on service who had heard her prediction were stunned into silent sobriety thinking the episode to be eerily macabre indeed. Then in critiquing our care to see if we had made any errors, the senior supervising Attending Physician did come to realize that we had, in fact, made one small but ultimately serious mistake.

He looked around at the team primarily responsible for her and said;

  • So in your secular scientific doubting hubris; did any of you happen ask her what that Angel looked like?

In the deafening silence, you could hear a pin drop.

Angel of Death

 There is a Reaper, whose name is Death,

And with his sickle keen,

He reaps the bearded grain at a breath,

And the flowers that grow between.

 Oh not in cruelty, not in wrath,

The Reaper came that day;

‘Twas an angel visited the green earth,

And took the flowers away.


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