The irony of me observing death on a day celebrating my birth

As part of my medical school’s inter-professional learning, I shadowed a hospital chaplain this afternoon. While physicians principally attend to the physical healing of patients, chaplains also fulfill an important role in health care: meeting the spiritual needs of patients. When faced with disease, patients often grapple with deeper questions about their illness beyond just what the diagnosis and treatment plans are.

Immediately upon arriving at the hospital, there was a code blue. A patient had arrived to the emergency room a few days prior with a pulmonary condition. And now she was in cardiac arrest. From my first semester of medical school, I could gather that due to the weakness in her lungs, she wasn’t getting enough oxygen and as such, her heart, a muscle which requires a large sum of oxygen to function, had ceased to continue working.

As I entered the emergency room, the medical team was busy at work performing CPR. They furiously pumped the patient’s chest, ran the defibrillator, and repeated the process. The team diligently did this over and over again, but the patient’s vitals showed no change. There was no heart rate.

Finally, the family indicated for the medical team to stop CPR. The team paused. And when the attending physician had recollected himself, he officially pronounced the patient dead.

The daughter-in-law burst out in tears, collapsing on her deceased loved-one’s body. “You can’t leave me. You can’t leave me. You can’t go.” That anguished wail — it’s unscripted, unrehearsed. Nothing portrayed in the movies can prepare you to receive that intensity of pure uninhibited display of emotion. The rest of the family ranged in their responses, some shocked, others strained in stoicism.

Just moments ago, the patient was alive, and in an instant, she died — never again would she wake from that restful spell death had cast on her. She would never again take a breath; her heart would never again pump a beat. But something greater had happened today than just the physiological failings of her internal organs. It was something that science couldn’t explain, something that even words can fail to describe. It was the heaviness of the scene, the feeling that something truly remarkable had occurred. This was real. This was life. I nodded to the chaplain.

Something had stirred in my own soul. I felt death today. It was in the same room with me. And yet, I had escaped it.

Today is my 25th birthday. Upon leaving the hospital, I felt the sun’s rays — I noticed its warming effects on my face. I saw messages and missed calls from friends wishing me happy birthday. I went back home and enjoyed dinner with my parents. I caught up with my best friends on the phone the rest of the evening. Even with the specter of death hanging over my head, I felt a stronger force of life pulsing through my body. Friendship, family, love. That’s what is so important to me. That’s why I want to live. That’s why medicine matters to the patients whom I’ll one day be treating.

While I went home and hugged my family a little bit harder, the family I met at the hospital had to do the same, in the absence of someone they loved. I’m grateful for them for allowing me into such a pivotal juncture of their lives as individuals and as a family. I’m sure this will be an experience they never forget.

Death comes only once to an individual, a few times for a family. But it’s something that physicians see consistently as part of their profession. This was only the first time I witnessed death, though I will surely meet it again.

My parents noted the irony of me observing death on a day celebrating my birth. But it was exactly this juxtaposition of one state to another that proved so meaningful to me. Only upon rising from the depths of despair could the nectars of life taste so sweet. It was a gift to witness what I saw today.

Johnathan Yao is a medical student.

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