How death is a blessing and a burden

Our goal in medical school is to learn how to preserve the quality of life. Yet, in order to better understand human life, we are immediately faced with death by means of anatomy lab.

From week one, we are tasked with removing the skin and fat from a cadaver’s thorax — desensitizing ourselves to death enough so we may cope with dissecting someone’s beloved mother or adored husband. It’s difficult not to contemplate what the same body was like when it brimmed with life. It’s difficult not to think how the absence of an electric current is the only thing keeping our loved ones, and ourselves, from that same absolute stillness.

To get through each lab, I learned to avoid this “death” rabbit-hole and strictly focused on identifying the assigned anatomical structures. I got by with dodging death until the week of Block 2 exams.

I spent the morning of October 28th preparing for a marathon of review sessions, when my mom called with news that Nani had passed away in India.

My maternal grandmother, whom I called Nani, had been suffering from osteoporosis and advancing dementia. Despite anticipating this day for the past few years, I was paralyzed with pain.

My mom, through her own unbearable pain, explained how Nani had died in little distress. She remained mobile till her last day and had not spent any time in the hospital. Nani lived her final moments lying peacefully in her bed, in the company of family.

The third of 10 siblings, Nani was nothing short of an icon.

In the 1960s, she studied microbiology and graduated at the top of her class at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, India. Her professors encouraged her to apply to medical school. And, when offered admission, she made the difficult decision to turn it down. At the time, Nani was leading an infectious disease research team at Glaxo Laboratories and was teaching introductory science courses at an esteemed local college. She felt these positions better suited the impending pressures to settle down and start a family.

As anticipated, Nani soon got married and gave up her career to raise her family. Nani’s devotion to her faith and family was unshakable and became central to her new venture — beginning a “rida” business.

While designing the colorful head-to-toe dresses worn by women in my religious community, the “rida” became Nani’s agar plate.

She applied techniques to the dress that she had cultivated during her grade-school years, like cross-stitching and cloth painting. Her trailblazing trends drew clientele from around Mumbai, then across the globe.

While processing Nani’s death and simultaneously trying to prepare for exams, I was nervous to take part in the anatomy practical later that week. It’s not ideal to be tested in a room filled with dead bodies immediately after the death of a loved one. I had to find meaning to Nani’s death in order to carry on.

For the past nine years, I have proudly displayed the work of my microbiologist-turned-fashion-designer grandmother daily. I realized my “rida” serves as a reminder that Nani lived fully, and that she helped thousands of other women express their identity through their attire as well.

Similarly, the cadavers’ bodies serve as reminders that human lives were lived.

Now in their death, we as medical students are afforded the priceless opportunity to learn from them.

A month after I was born, my maternal grandfather died unexpectedly, and Nani became our family’s matriarch out of necessity.

Even while grieving the loss of her husband, she remained unrelentingly optimistic. Nani continued growing her business in Mumbai and, throughout my childhood, she spent a few months each year with my family in Katy, Texas.

Among countless other life hacks and lessons, I learned Nani’s trusty home remedies. My favorite was a yoga pose for bloating called “pavanamuktasana” (literally translating to “wind relieving pose” — look it up, you’ll thank me later).

Another leveraged our Indian roots (pun intended), where Nani emphasized using turmeric and ginger instead of Sudafed and TUMS.

Nani instilled in me a curiosity for holistic health and well-being, a curiosity that led me to medical school. I tried, and still try, my best to emulate her no-nonsense attitude, her eye for detail, and her unyielding optimism.

Understanding death is focal to understanding the art of healing. Though unfortunately, we don’t approach death head-on. We try to escape it at all costs, using terms like “end of life” and “poor prognosis.”

That knee-jerk reaction to avoid death even translates into medical treatment, with clinical goals so often prioritizing the forceful extension of life rather than accepting a life well-lived.

As a first-year medical student dealing with the blessing and burden of death, I am trying to channel my inner-Nani and find pragmatic, positive ways to make meaning of it. Slowly, I am becoming more comfortable falling down that “death” rabbit-hole.

Fatema Shipchandler is a medical student.

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