The Dead Teach the Living

By An Anonymous Author

Embolus feature May

This picture was taken moments after resuscitation. The dried blood on the watch marks the time we took to save the man’s life. Yet, unfortunately, the patient passed away, alone in a room full of strangers he briefly met just forty minutes ago.

The patient arrived by ambulance, with the paramedics pumping on his his chest as we transferred him over to the gurney in the resuscitation room. The paramedics failed to intubate because of a difficult airway. Once the residents managed to intubate him, I was handed the task of ventilating the patient with a bag valve mask. I internally counted the intervals required to help the man breathe, squeezing the bag and watching his chest rise rhythmically as the doctors carried out chest compressions.

With each subsequent breath, however, he became increasingly difficult to bag, as if life was slowly escaping his limp body. And with each squeeze, blood would leak out from the small valve of the mask. Amidst the chaos, I watched as his blood trickled from my fingers down my forearms. It was as if he was falling apart in front of me.

“Time of death, four twenty-five,” declared one of the residents.

The desperate atmosphere of the resuscitation room became suddenly somber. As the residents left, thanking everyone for their help, I overheard a senior nurse asking one of the new nurses whether she’d prepared a body before. Watching the nurses quietly zipping the man into a body bag, I looked at the man’s face one last time. How lonely he was in his last moments without the company of his loved ones.

In clinical anatomy when we dissect cadavers, identify the landmarks, we are told, Mortui Vivos Docent, the dead teach the living. During our clinical years, armed with the anatomic and pre-clinical knowledge, we see the patients we serve pass away and recall what was once said to us, Mortui Vivos Docent, the dead teach the living. But in this case, the dead not only teach us the clinical knowledge, but the human aspect of medicine.

It seems amidst all the time we buried ourselves in books, we have lost the human touch to medicine and forget the humanity of those we serve. With our numbering days we spend in medical school, we realize that time flies so quickly as we look back into our youthful days. Yet, we have a hard time confronting the time in front of us dwindles just as quickly. The deaths of our patients not only teach us the things we could have done differently, but grounds us with the reminder to never abandon our patients and the humanity that embodies them.

And perhaps when we graduate, we will read this oath to re-affirm this promise we once made when we decided to commit our lives in service of others:

“At the time of being admitted as a member of the medical profession:
I solemnly pledge to consecrate my life to the service of humanity;
I will give to my teachers the respect and gratitude that is their due;
I will practise my profession with conscience and dignity;
The health of my patient will be my first consideration;
I will respect the secrets that are confided in me, even after the patient has died;
I will maintain, by all the means in my power, the honour and the noble traditions of the medical profession;
My colleagues will be my sisters and brothers;
I will not permit considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient;
I will maintain the utmost respect for human life;
I will not use my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat;
I make these promises solemnly, freely and upon my honour.” 

(World Medical Association’s Declaration of Geneva)




First published as an AMSA Embolus Feature

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