By Kit Ming Foo
Year 3B, the first year where we as medical students truly get to experience the wonder and thrill of ward medicine. It is the first time that we witness the feel-good moments of solving a patient’s issues. It is the first time that we celebrate many little victories, like being able to scrub in or even getting in our first successful cannula. It is also the first time that we as medical students are exposed to a side of medicine, which we often do not talk about; death, dying and all the emotions that come along with it.
Throughout the initial years of our course we are taught about the intricacies of many diseases and the pharmacology of numerous drugs but little if any time is spent on how to cope with a patient’s death. So what should we do?
There is not one correct answer as everyone has different ways of coping but one idea is the importance of being able to reflect on what has happened. For me, looking back at the first time I witnessed the death of a patient, the simple act of my registrar asking if I wanted to talk about what I had seen was an important gesture, even though at the time I did not realise it.
Often we as medical students tend to sweep things under the rug, trying to soldier on through our degree with a smile, even though we have the weight of many things bearing down upon us. The passing of a patient can often be one of those situations where we feel that we should be able to just move on, but this should not be the case. We need to become more comfortable talking about things that gnaw away at us, as keeping it inside is definitely not a good recipe for success!
For me, the registrar’s act was small but powerful, one that created an opportunity where I felt safe talking about my feelings. I now realise how important such an act was, because I could open up and talk about all the thoughts that were racing through my mind. It also gave the registrar a chance to normalise my feelings and show that what I was experiencing was not absurd but in fact an understandable reaction. This is an important lesson that I learnt in my first clinical year; that sometimes you feel that you are the only one experiencing such a situation but in reality, many others around you are too. If we were all able to discuss things more openly, we would be better equipped to help each other out. Recently, I was talking to a few of my friends about our first experience of a patient dying and it was surprising to hear that we all shared similar thoughts, that the first time we experienced such a loss was a thing that we all still clearly remember. It was reassuring to hear this so many months afterwards but I have no doubt it would have had a bigger impact on me had these discussions happened earlier.
The journey to becoming a doctor is littered with many challenges. However, we do not have to face them alone. The power of being able to reflect and talk about your experiences should not be underestimated and kudos should be given to initiatives like “R U OK day” for encouraging such discussions. Understandably not all of us may feel comfortable in participating in such events but I do encourage everyone to have a person that they can talk to. On the flip side, we too have a responsibility to look out for our fellow course-mates and offering to listen to a friend can go a long way. So let’s not forget what the simple act of having a conversation can do in helping everyone’s wellbeing!