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A dignified death and the day I wish I smoked News

November 21, 2012

Behind the Patient: Street Portraits
by Michael Morse

A dignified death and the day I wish I smoked

The tranquil, respectful environment was instantly transformed during this particular call...

By Michael Morse

He was dead. His eyes were open. He looked peaceful. Two friends paced the room, smoking cigarettes, and sneaking glances at their fallen comrade.

He died sitting in his favorite chair, or at least his most recent favorite. One of the smoking guys had let him stay with him these last few months; he had nowhere else to go.

The doctors at the VA had given him six months to live a year ago, he was just holding on, living on borrowed time, wasting away in a chair that wasn't his own.

One of the guys cooked a meal for him last night, a steak and macaroni and cheese. There was nothing left on the plate that sat empty in front of him, it was wiped clean.

"Who found him?" I asked.

"He was there when I woke up," said one of the guys, lighting another smoke. "I knew he was dead the second I saw him."

We chatted for a while, the two guys, me and Brian. The dead guy may have been listening, may have transcended into another being, might be in Heaven or Hell or may simply just be dead and gone.

Some day we'll find out for ourselves.

He was a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and so were his friends. Hepatitis C is what eventually did him in. He was a good guy I was told, just down on his luck, and out of options.

He didn't want to spend his last days cooped up in a hospital room, and spent some time on the streets before he connected with the guys who let him die in their apartment.

It was against the rules, the building had strict rules concerning overnight guests, but they took the chance and got lucky. For some people, letting a friend die with dignity, and a last meal in a favorite chair is considered luck.

Life is funny, people with everything want more, and people with next to nothing consider themselves lucky.

The police handle these things once we declare a person dead. I radioed for a Police Sergeant and waited for him to show up. I asked if the rosary that was wrapped around the dead guy's hands was of his doing.

One of the guys said that he put it there when he found him. It seemed the right thing to do. We stood by in comfortable silence until the police came. After a few minutes, an officer showed up. He wasn't the Sergeant; he was a new guy, one I didn't know.

"I can't breathe in here," was the first thing he said. "Put out those cigarettes."

The vets looked at each other, looked at me, looked at the authority figure 40 years their junior and then simultaneously looked at their dead friend.

The tranquil, respectful environment was instantly transformed. Before the officer arrived, five guys waited in a smoky room, contemplative, and respectful, me and Brian respecting our combat veterans, the two other guys respecting the memory of their friend.

Just like that, the atmosphere was transformed, and we stood in a section eight apartment with three nearly homeless vets, one dead. The last supper was now just a dirty dish, sitting on a TV table in a run down, crummy place where some of our veterans who didn't thrive after the war spend their last days.

I wish I smoked, I would have sparked one up right then and there, and flicked the ashes of the cop's shiny shoes. I was in their house. If they wish to smoke, smoke away, especially at a time like this.

"I'm sorry for your loss," I said and told the cop the official time of death. The two living combat vets stepped outside to finish their butts. I couldn't help but think of this line as we drove away.

"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." William Shakespeare

Their friend was dead, and the government officials were assholes. It matters not what me and Brian did, or how we acted, what mattered to them, and the memory that will linger long after the body is removed is that the new guys in uniform treated them like trash.

About the author

Michael Morse is a rescue captain with the Providence Fire Department and the author of Rescuing Providence and Responding. He has worked on engine, ladder and rescue companies during his 21-year career. His current assignment is Rescue Company 5. Michael blogs at
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Bob Stakem Bob Stakem Wednesday, November 21, 2012 11:42:23 AM Awesome read. Puts an interesting light on how our actions are interpreted by others.
Ann Maureen Dunphy Ann Maureen Dunphy Wednesday, November 21, 2012 1:38:12 PM For my EMS facebook friends; a must read!
Daniel Theiler Daniel Theiler Wednesday, November 21, 2012 1:53:45 PM absolutely!!
Stephen Morrison Stephen Morrison Wednesday, November 21, 2012 3:13:13 PM After 38 years as a career firefighter, I finally retired. My wife immediately put me out to work with the homeless in our community. I have learned more about the human spirit in this line of work. The dignity all of us seek, living and the dead. The fear in a crowded bus stop, the cold at midnight when you have no place to sleep. I spend most of my time with homeless Veterans, the 1% that stand to protect the 99% sitting in their comfortable chairs. I applaud the author for a great story. I appreciate the respect he showed for our fallen Brother and the men that were there for him in the end. Silent heroes, band of Brothers, yep, "smoke em, if you got em", the smoking lamp is lit". Next time, borrow a smoke, and flick a little ash on his shoes, maybe blow a smoke ring in his face. The law enforcement officer does not reflect the officers that I worked with, men and women I truly respected. Thanks for sharing.
Melinda Teaster Williams Melinda Teaster Williams Thursday, November 22, 2012 7:01:31 AM I will never understand that why a Bagde and gun makes some think they have the right to become "Assholes" Disrespectful, down right rude and just treat People like crap.
Katie Moon Katie Moon Thursday, November 22, 2012 8:56:07 AM its sad that this stuff happens.i am fortunate enough to live in a city that has excellent officers who handle these situations very well which makes it a comfort for all when they show up in this kind of situation.great article.
Wm Boyd Howell Wm Boyd Howell Friday, November 23, 2012 5:25:59 PM A good read, but a sad story the rookie officer couldn't have been a bit more respectful of the departed. I would like to hope of the medics waited for the officer to clear the scene and lit into his rookie ass. Or at least ran it up their chain of command to pass it to the officer's chain of command.
Jennifer Reed Mitch Jennifer Reed Mitch Sunday, November 25, 2012 7:23:05 PM Powerful story. Thanks for sharing and thanks for not kicking the rookie's ass even though you wanted to. Thank you for treating those people with dignity, grace, and respect.
Joseph Casey Fisher Joseph Casey Fisher Monday, November 26, 2012 4:21:54 AM A Great read and some insight to the problems faced by many homeless and displaced Veterans...
Laura Richard Laura Richard Monday, November 26, 2012 6:51:19 AM and that is why the stupid little saying really does mean something....Don't judge a book by its cover...until you talked to this man's buddies you didn't know his story...after hearing it; it put a different light on this gentleman. I applaud you for showing respect not only to the departed but to the two men who made that gentleman's last days on earth just a little bit I would not have had as much control over my emotions as you did....I'm not a smoker anymore but in that case I would have borrowed a cigarette, lit it up and smoked it right there!
Bill Ellingham Bill Ellingham Monday, November 26, 2012 7:31:29 AM I think I would have put my smoke his ear.
Bill Ellingham Bill Ellingham Monday, November 26, 2012 7:32:29 AM 4 years smoke free here, and you know when I started!
Laura Richard Laura Richard Monday, November 26, 2012 11:11:15 AM It has been almost 2 1/2 years here!!!
Hollie Jones Hollie Jones Monday, November 26, 2012 6:54:30 PM I think your harshness towards the officer is bit much. We all say things that don't come out right from time to time. My mother died in 2004 from lung cancer and I spent way to many years dealing with second hand smoke. I always ask people to put out there cigarettes when I'm on scene. I don't think there is any thing disrespectful about not wanting to endure or see others endure the suffering and misery that come from smoking. I know some of you are going to read this and think that I go around preaching at others not to smoke and that's not the case. I just have the right to work in a smoke free environment. Give the cop a break he's new and he to deserves compassion and understanding just like the pt. friends.
Jennifer Reed Mitch Jennifer Reed Mitch Monday, November 26, 2012 7:01:03 PM I think you missed the point. Whether what he said came out wrong or was what he intended to say; he should have been respectful. There are polite ways to ask a person to put out their cigarettes. Plus, had he been observant (which Police are trained to be), he would have seen their shock and grief. I know that EMTs and Paramedics can be brusk, but I believe if Mike believed the guy was just being cocky he would have asked him outside for a chat. It sounds to me that the cop was like a lot of others I've met. Too full of themselves and their badges and guns to stop and think. As a Paramedic I'm surprised that you're taking the rookie's side.
Kristopher J Ehlert Kristopher J Ehlert Monday, November 26, 2012 8:25:44 PM I agree Hollie! You are exactly on point. You know how I would react! I have so much I could say! JRM can go suck it.
David Oliver Johnson David Oliver Johnson Monday, November 26, 2012 8:49:01 PM We were all rookies at one point. We have all learned what is a useful approach to dealing with clients is, and what tactics do not work. How did we learn that? Often by making those very mistakes. Even though you are not that officers FTO, we all get an opportunity to precept each other, and this is one of those teachable moments, not am opportunity to pounce upon someone who probably doesn't know better [yet]. We all have to play in the sandbox together, love your playmates or not. There are respectful ways of approaching this topic, and perhaps interjecting your approach as an overlay of the officers approach, could deescalate matters and serve as an educational opportunity. I'm not posting this simply because Hollie is my partner next year, but because i have to spend two hours in a car in rush hour traffic with her tomorrow.
Laura Richard Laura Richard Tuesday, November 27, 2012 1:39:02 PM You have the right to work in a spoke free environment is correct...problem is this was not an office, not a public place but someone's home who has been dealing with the death of a is not in the officer's place to tell someone to stop smoking in their OWN home...if he can't deal with the smoke, get out and have someone who can go in and get the job done with respect and dignity that it deserves.
Kathy Berard Whitmarsh Kathy Berard Whitmarsh Thursday, November 29, 2012 7:04:03 AM Mike bless your heart for being such an amazing man. You are such an inspiration which I know your Mom and Dad would be so proud! Love you Cuz!
Kristopher J Ehlert Kristopher J Ehlert Sunday, December 02, 2012 10:20:25 PM Next time I am on shortness of breath call and momma is in her recliner smoking, I will remember it is her house!
Kristopher J Ehlert Kristopher J Ehlert Sunday, December 02, 2012 10:20:38 PM Spoke free!!!
Kristopher J Ehlert Kristopher J Ehlert Sunday, December 02, 2012 10:20:59 PM No spoking!!
Kristopher J Ehlert Kristopher J Ehlert Sunday, December 02, 2012 10:21:14 PM Put your spoke out!

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