When medical students first deal with death

Very few are as starkly aware of the transience of life as those working in the healthcare profession. We are expected to be, for want of a better word, immune to it; as if each death we face is somehow a vaccine that will eventually, with regular booster doses, provide us with enough immunity to be resistant to the Grim Reaper.

We spend years studying, arming ourselves with pages and pages of textbook information, building our armies that comprise of various specialties in the hope of fighting our Goliath. We often succeed, but memories of the times that we don’t keep us awake for years to come. Sometimes, death sneaks up on us, ambushing us when we least expect it, and at other times, it gives us a chance – lets us gather up our full strength and develop a strategy to beat it down, and beat it down we do. It may not deserve such a beautiful metaphor, but it really is like a Phoenix, rising from its ashes after each ending.

We leave our battlefields with scars; scars that may make us stronger, but no prouder. We cover them with confidence, and hide them under a starched white coat, but no matter what we do, there they remain, ready to bleed at the slightest touch. We begin our journey as medical students, sheltered and unscathed. After being brought to our knees by the first blow, we are often mocked for our vulnerability. We are told that eventually, we will not be paralyzed by the loss of a life; eventually, we will be able to look death in the eye without blinking and without shedding a tear, but as much as I wish to not end every day weeping, strangely, I can’t help but wonder whether that is what I really want.

Yes, I need to build nerves of steel, and yes, I need to be pragmatic, but do I need to lose my ability to feel? One may argue that doctors need to keep emotions and medical judgment aside, and don’t get me wrong, I am in total agreement, but after all is said and done, why can’t I feel the pain of loss? Why can’t I mourn the death of someone who once was a child, a parent or a spouse? Why can’t I shed a tear for someone of whose demise no one else might be aware?

Death may defeat us constantly, but not consistently. We are strong, powerful, and vigilant, and often deliver a blow that knocks it out for a good amount of time. When we lose, however, we still look it in the eye and warn of our vengeance, but when it turns to leave, we are allowed to collapse. We are allowed to lick our wounds and succumb to tears, because underneath all the layers of strength, confidence, knowledge and experience, our essence is purely human.

Irma Faruqi is a medical student. 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1277587956 Victoria Muron Layton

    A physician’s compassion is often the greatest gift he/she gives to a dying patient and their family.  Unfortunately, we have a critical shortage of physicians qualified to care for patients in the end-stages of life.  I am using every possible method to find physicians trained in Hospice & Palliative Medicine who are willing to work in NYC or Boston.  If you know someone, please share.  http://apps.facebook.com/job-magic/job/Hospice-Palliative-Medicine-Job-New-York-US-9367834.html.  

  • http://empoweredpractice.com/ Trista

    The more closely it hits to home the harder it is to keep that professionalism with the patients. But nothing is to say that you cannot break down when you walk out. Expressing empathy and care for the patients and their families are often times just what they need to get through the moment, acknowledging how they feel and offering what you can. All skills that amazing doctors possess. 

  • Anonymous

    Death is part of life. We all die. We should aspire to a good death with our dignity intact. As a critical care nurse becoming immune to death is a sure sign of burn out or of no longer being able to provide your patients with the care the deserve. We don’t defeat death; we provide compassion and care. We may prolong life, but death is inevitable. Physicians who see death as the enemy that they must attack at all costs are the ones who order complete radiation therapy for a patient with lymphoma on the day they die instead of providing compassion, caring and comfort.

  • DrCunninghamMFT

    We come up close and personal with our own mortality every time we lose a loved one or almost lose a loved one. Even children who lose a pet get a glimmer of impermanence. To the extent that we live our lives in a meaningful way is the extent to which we are immersed in a positive life stream. To celebrate a birthday is to remember to take a look at how we are living. Those who have recovered from serious illness seem to live life more vibrantly as a result of their near loss. The poignancy of this duality of life/death is apparent to all who work with people who have recovered from diseases like cancer. 
    Dr. Barbara Cunningham, MFT

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