The story of Nick Adams*
Christ Community's family medicine hospital service is staffed by a small number of supervising and resident doctors; over the course of Nick’s long stay, we all cared for him. He was white, thin, and had a graying beard. When we spoke to him, he answered flatly, usually in short sentences. On occasion, however, he would volunteer curious information. One morning he informed us that he had met God in New Jersey. On another he mentioned a specific high school in Slate Hill, NY. Mostly he laid on his bed or sat in a chair looking out the window of his eighth floor room. He seemed to especially enjoy watching the Central High School Band practice in Crump Stadium.
The brain surgeons told us what we already knew: Nick’s tumor was too large and too fast growing to benefit from surgery. He would die in a matter of weeks, perhaps months. We set ourselves to figuring out who he was, hoping to contact whatever family he might have.
One of our senior residents led the investigation, sitting for hours with Nick, asking him questions, searching for clues in the broken answers. He contacted authorities in New Jersey and New York, hoping to link Nick to a missing person--without success. Eventually, this same resident had Nick photographed and even fingerprinted. He sent the data to local and national authorities, including the FBI.
It became clear that Nick would not be identified prior to his death. This fact sunk into the imagination of nearly everyone who had contact with him--not just the doctors and nurses, but the food service and cleaning people, the social workers and case managers. Nick Adams must be someone. He was a son or a brother or a father to someone, somewhere. What was his life about before he appeared in the shelter?
Nick’s lack of identity didn’t erase his humanity, or the humanity of those who cared for him. Our residents took turns sitting and telling him stories, knowing that he understood little of what was happening. They tried to identify foods he liked. From time to time, they shaved his beard. In our morning prayer time, before rounds, they prayed that he would be spared pain, that he would be forgiven of whatever sins he might have committed, and that he would be welcomed into Heaven. One of our residents brought his guitar to Nick’s room and sang for him.
In truth, Nick became dearer as he progressively gave ground to the brain tumor. His answers became shorter and rarer. He became unable to walk without assistance. If not carefully supervised, he would try to get out of bed and fall. Through his slow decline, the hospital staff protected and served him. They maintained his dignity. He was more than a brain tumor dying in room 842, he was Nick Adams, a man whose apparent lack of connection made him connected to all of us. As another of our residents pointed out, his name, Adams, harkened to the first man in the Book of Genesis--and to all of humanity.
The end came quickly. Over just a few days, Nick became completely unresponsive. His pupils indicated that the pressure in his head was rapidly increasing. Normal neurologic reflexes were replaced by foreboding ones. When he breathed his last and was officially declared dead, hospital staff took turns tearfully entering his room to pay their last respects.
There’s much that needs improvement in our health care system, but the case of Nick Adams is reassuring. In the best tradition of faith-based hospitals, the caregivers of Methodist University Hospital received and served a penniless, dying stranger. They sat with him in his loneliness, comforted him in his pain, and watched with him as he died.