Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Death In The Family

Doctor Consoling Patient Relative

Recently there was a death in the family.

It wasn't anyone very close, but close enough that it's been taking up all my time, which is why I haven't put up the stories from the comments on The Question Everyone Should Ask Themselves. I've seen quite a bit of death lately, and it makes me ponder.

Death has an effect on everyone. It reminds you that however young or old you are, however healthy (or fatass unhealthy) and however ridiculously good-looking (like me) you are, we all die. It will all end someday.

As a doctor, death changes you. The first few times, anyway. If you let it affect you, you're protecting your humanity. But if you harden up (as all doctors do eventually) and don't let it affect you, you're protecting your heart.

old lady in bed
I still remember vividly the first time I pronounced someone dead. It was an elderly grandmother sitting alone in her hospital bed. The family had all left the previous night, and she died in the early morning. The senior doctor and I walked into the room, and there she was, lying on the bed, perfectly still. I remember wondering what a dead body would look like just before entering her room. It didn't look very different from a sleeping person.

The doctor taught me to listen for the heartbeat for three whole minute, then check for breath sounds, then check for a pulse. Having watched too many horror movies (or Scrubs episodes) I kept expecting her to jump awake at any moment and scare me right out of my pants. But of course, she lay perfectly still. Nothing. She was truly gone.

W. oliver stone screenshot
What is the ultimate lesson of death? We already know. Every day we watch movies that tell us, listen to music that tells us, talk to old family members who tell us. Yet still we never listen. The lesson is - life ends. Yours will end someday too. Maybe even today, maybe tomorrow. So we truly should live with no regrets. We truly should act as if every day was our last. As George W. Bush's pastor in the Oliver Stone film 'W.' tells him - "I want you to treat everybody you meet - your friends, your enemies, EVERYBODY - like they were going to be dead at midnight".

But living like that is hard. We tell ourselves it's human nature to plan for the future. If we truly lived like there was no tomorrow, we'd all be out partying and looting and killing our politicians and I'd be gang-raped by every nurse in the hospital (I'm joking. Partly). So maybe we can compromise. Maybe we can start by being nicer to each other. Because death hangs over all of us.

I'll be back next week. In the meantime, if you have any stories of what death means to you, please share them in the comments.


Doctor Zorro said...

From personal experience I can tell you that you never fully harden. You can go for years and the most dreadful tragedies can leave you unaffected behind your personally erected wall of professional indifference. And then totally unexpectedly a case comes along that knocks your wall down and bites you in the ass.

Dr Erhumu said...

This has got to be your second most serious post i've read - First being the Valentine's day story.
What I've learnt about death: It makes all our strife, envy, cold blooded ambition, greed unnecessary. It teaches us to value the little things of life - friendship, family and love. At the end of the day, its the impact we've made on people's lives, not ours, that matter.

Prickatron said...

My sympathies, TAM. From ashes to ashes, from curry-powder to curry-power...

The Angry Medic said...

Dr Zorro: Wow. That is profound. Thanks for sharing Dr Z. I'll keep that in mind. It's reassuring to know that it never fully takes away your humanity.

The Angry Medic said...

Dr Erhumu: Reading that makes me a little chilled - it reminds me how much of what we struggle with day to day doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things. You are, of course, absolutely right.

The Angry Medic said...

Prickatron: "Curry power"? What is that, some weird belief about the afterlife?

And thanks man.

Nas Johari said...

If we lived like there was no tomorrow or lived today as if it were our last, would we leave any balance in the bank account? Darn these cells, every one of 'em programmed to survive today, tomorrow and beyond. (Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene comes to mind, hehe).

Nice blog by the way. :-)

Anonymous said...

I think "curry power" relates to what the ash cash will be spent on, a good night out at the local balti house.

Nicki said...

As a layperson whose husband died six weeks ago, death to me means the end of the life that I knew, the end of security, the end of caring for my soulmate. But it's also a new beginning...I may not have chosen this but I do have to deal with it.

I can sit in the corner and wallow in my grief or I can get on with life. I've never been good at sitting in the corner - just ask my former teachers!

My husband wouldn't want me to sit around in floods of tears, he would want me to carry on, to live my life in his honour.

However, what is relevant to this post is that the medical staff at the hospital treated us as human beings during my husband's last hours. To all of the medical personnel who read this blog, please remember that what you say and do is important - you may not save a life but you may make it possible for the family of the deceased to cope.

Knowing that my husband was treated with loving care in his last hours enabled me to accept his death just that bit easier. Being allowed to stay with him, albeit in an uncomfortable put-u-up was essential to my peace of mind. Knowing that he wasn't in pain was a real comfort. The compassion I and my family got from the medical staff was wonderful.

Thanks to those who care enough to care for the family as well as the patient.