An emergency room doctor faces death every day, but Dr. Mert Erogul experienced a touching encounter with life this week — as he watched life slipping away from a 100-year-old woman.
Erogul is a physician at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. It’s been a terrible week for medical staffers at hospitals across New York City, as these overworked doctors and nurses care for those afflicted with COVID-19 in addition to their normal work load.
But the story of one patient stands out to Erogul this week.
Among the massive caseload he was dealing with was a 100-year-old Hasidic Jewish woman who had been stricken by COVID-19 and gotten pneumonia. Erogul wanted to get her stable enough to send home — so she could die at home with family — but she was doing so poorly that he couldn’t release her.
After the woman’s blood pressure dropped and Erogul decided to keep her in the hospital, the woman’s son kept calling for an hour to find out how she was doing.
“I finally told him, ‘Look, she’s a hundred years old with pneumonia in both lungs,'” Erogul wrote on a Facebook post. “‘She’s not good. She’s not going to do well.'”
And then the son asked to speak to his mother on the phone, but Erogul told him that he couldn’t, because he was too busy. The son called back 10 minutes later.
“I said, ‘listen, sir, your mother is not conscious anymore,” Erogul wrote in his public post.
The son told him that’s OK, but that it was very important that he do a prayer for her. He asked Erogul if he would just hold the speaker to her ear.
“I had 10 other pressing things to do,” Erogul said. “But I stopped what I was doing out of respect for this 100-year-old woman and put the cell on speakerphone and told him to talk.”
The son started the Jewish Prayer for the Dead, but he started to cry. He could barely get the words out. As the son tearfully prayed and Erogul silently witnessed the unfolding drama, the doctor noticed that the old woman had numbers tattooed on her arm, indicating that she had been a prisoner at a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
“He was crying for his mother and praying the shema,” Erogul wrote, “the verses of unity — and it woke up some emotion in me that I had forgotten about.”
And then the experience was over.
“Time slowed down and I felt restored to myself,” Erogul wrote. “When he was done, he thanked me and blessed me, and I said thank you to him.”
It’s often in the midst of the ugliest waves of death and darkness that we unexpectedly find glimpses of life and light. Mert Erogul saw a brief glimpse of light and humanity in the exchange he facilitated between a dying woman and her grieving son.
I’m grateful that Erogul set aside those brief minutes to see a side of life and death which is touching and powerful.