Do Not Resuscitate

Moments to Remember

I remember thinking, this decision could cost me my job. Then I remember thinking, this job might cost me far more…

By Michael Morse

It’s late, the hour, and the amount of time left for the man whose dying breaths fill the room. The dreadful sound of a person’s final moments prompted one of the family to call 911, even though they had been coached and had been preparing for this moment for months. Their dad, husband, brother, friend, and grandpa lay dying in the living room of the house he built and raised his family in. Most were there now, the phone calls going out a few hours ago, that chain of communication families dealing with terminal illness know all too well:

“It’s soon.”

The gathering of loved ones parts as we arrive, making way for our bag full of meds, the defibrillator, the stair chair, prepared to do what we must.

“Does he have any final wishes?” I ask, hoping somebody understands and comes up with the Do Not Resuscitate (DNR). Without a valid DNR order, I am bound by law to do anything and everything to prolong the life of the man who has run out of time.  My partner puts an oxygen mask over the man’s face; a few people protest, most simply watch.

“The Hospice people have the paperwork.”

His respirations are slowing now, his 80-pound frame shaking, thankfully unconscious as the morphine pump grinds along.

I hear the sirens of the engine company in the distance, more strangers about to invade this intimate gathering–this final farewell. It is a moment that will stay with the survivors forever and give them comfort in the difficult days ahead, remembering that their loved one died with dignity in the home he built, surrounded by family.

Or not.

“I need a DNR order signed by him or a doctor,” I say to the person who appears to be in charge. He nods, understanding my request and the position I am in.

Two respirations a minute now. The guy is fumbling for the paperwork as his dad is about to leave this earth forever. The engine company arrives on scene, chaos about to enter and ruin the hoped for serenity of a man’s final moments with his family.

“It’s okay,” I tell the man, and step outside, closing the door behind me.


Michael Morseis a former captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD), an author, and a popular columnist. He served on PFD’s Engine Co. 2., Engine Co. 9, and Ladder Co. 4 for 10 years prior to becoming an EMT-C on Rescue Co 1 and Captain of Rescue Co. 5.


  • Marge Fish says:

    the totally appropriate response – thanks you for having the humanity and strength to make that decision

  • Douglas Bird says:

    Oh, my friend, I feel your pain. That is a tough situation. It’s easy legally but, the pain on the families face as you start CPR tears my soul.
    Now, I can make a quick phone call to our Base Hospital Physician and ask for a medical Termination of Resuscitation. But, for years we could not legally honour a DNR. Doing chest compressions on a frail 90 year old is a horror I do not want to repeat.
    If it still bothers you, you are still human.

  • Michael Morse says:

    Thanks Douglas, it was kind of easy to make the decision, my own father had just died from cancer at home in his bed with a DNR handy.

  • Mark says:

    Excellent response. I’ve had some go on my watch, but hope I never face it again (and we all will).

  • Alan says:

    I was in an odd position. When my mom was terminal. 2 out of 3 sons were EMT’s and we’re also trustees of the living will. We argued with Hospice over the DNR. Without it we would have to do CPR lol g enough to get to the doctor so we could then tell the doctor he could tell us to stop. A medical-legal nightmare!

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