Her nails were painted.
She probably had them done just a couple of days ago. The bright red polish glistened on her perfectly filed fingernails. She had her toes done too.
Was she preparing for the holiday season? Had she begun her Christmas shopping yet? Was she making a list of new year’s resolutions?
It didn’t matter anymore.
She was lying there. The cold metal table provided the platform for her lifeless, still body. Her soft, tanned skin contrasted so harshly against the many hues of gray surrounding us.
I was too afraid to get any closer. I took a deep breath. The resident ushered me to step forward and get a better look before we gowned up.
“It gets easier to do with time,” she said.
What gets easier? Staring at a dead body? Realizing her perfectly painted nails, neatly pressed hair, and fresh makeup were so unnecessary at this point? How can this get easier? One moment she was present in this world and the next, she was gone.
She was nearly 50; her death was sudden. The providing physician was requesting an autopsy to determine her cause of death. So here she was, in front of me. I was on my pathology rotation for the month and part of my responsibilities included assisting with any autopsy cases that came through the department.
The autopsy room is buried deep within the hospital basement, cast to the side, down several long hallways. You’d never accidentally stumble into it. I think they meant it to be this way.
We proceeded with the autopsy. I couldn’t stop staring at her face. The mortician assisting the resident and I grabbed a towel and gently placed it over her face and then looked over to me. “Are you going to be OK?”
I was going to be just fine. I wasn’t her. I was still alive, breathing, feeling healthy. I was perfectly OK.
As physicians in training, we are always carefully observing the mystical magic of healing in the hospital. We “ooh” and “aah” at the powers of physicians to heal their patients. Even when one doesn’t make it, we don’t think much about them after rounds are completed. We hear residents mention casually, “Mr. Smith passed on this morning. His family was present, and I’ve already completed his paperwork.” While the attendings respond casually with, “OK, who is next on the list for us to see?”
But here she was. Here in front of me, after her paperwork was filed and her time of death already recorded. Still a medical mystery for the resident and I to work through. We examined every single organ in her body, looking for any sort of clue. Her coronaries were clear, no tumors were present, we didn’t observe any blood clots or emboli, no tissue appeared infarcted.
Cause of death unknown.
And that was it. We placed her organs back inside her, sewed her up and sent her body to the funeral home.
I left the hospital that day a little winded. I had been experiencing some personal struggles, many of which I’m still dealing with today. But for some reason, since that day, I keep coming back to her red nails. And I am again reminded of how silly my worries seem. Maybe because in the end, we all die. I know that sounds morbid, but it’s true.
Are we so preoccupied with attempting to live perfectly that we aren’t really living at all?
I’m not sure. But I do know that I’m going to paint my nails red this New Year’s Eve and vow to live a little more and worry a little less in 2016.
Fatima Fahs is a medical student and the national student president, AMWA. She blogs at Eat, Paint, Heal.
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