A Much Needed Reminder


It was in my eighth week of clinical learning that I witnessed my first death. The inevitable day in my career in medicine arrived early. A moment that I hadn’t thought much about prior to it happening. I assumed that because I was a medical student I would be able to brush it aside.

The man was not 85 years old, or living a helpless life. He didn’t slip away easily in his sleep. He was middle aged, previously healthy, and due to be picked up by his family one hour after his code blue call was rung up.

It wasn’t until a tutorial later that day, about four hours later, that a sense of anger and sadness really set into me. I was quiet in the tute, and couldn’t wait to get home. I called my parents and best friend for a chat, to talk through what I had seen. I tried to reason with myself that like the rest of the people in the room I just had to get used to seeing situations like this – prolonged, violent, perhaps futile resuscitation attempts.

But, I realised that even though one day in the future I will be more accustomed to it, that does not detract from the scenario that I witnessed. Because one day I will likely be desensitised to a situation like this, does not mean that I am expected from the start of my clinical days to be able to handle it. When I told my friends who study medicine what had happened, they did not seem surprised or concerned. They almost played it down. I felt like it was expected of me, as a medical student to already be able to cope perfectly with a situation like this simply because I was studying medicine.

One year on and I am still not accustomed to seeing death regularly. I am still taken aback by it. But because of this, I have learnt a valuable lesson. Before this situation, I had never seen death – the consequence of poor health, the thing medical staff try desperately to prevent. Because of this, I fell into the trap of seeing patients as disease rather than people. When I waited in line for a coffee in the hospital foyer I did not think about the situation of the many people around me.

Most people only enter hospitals when they are sick, or someone they love is sick. This is something that I had lost sight of. When I saw sick patients I felt sorry for them, but I had lost the idea that these patients were people. They were people who were extremely worried about their health, and they had family that was worried too. I gained a sense of perspective, and I hope that even though I may become accustomed to death in the future, that I do not lose this.

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