Death still affects me. I’m not numb. I’m human.

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It had been a long day. Our progress notes were done. The last scheduled case in the operating room was done, and it was time to wrap up loose ends and sign out my patients to the night team.

But that’s when Room 4 died.

I walked onto the Burn Unit. The nurses were frantic. Can you page the Intensive Care Resident? He’s bradying down. The patient’s heart rate was steadily declining towards 0. The man was dying. His family, eyes wide, unsure, scared, was quickly rushed into the waiting room because they had been standing there, watching our organized frenzy, helpless.

A crash cart was opened in it were the supplies to save his life.

Pulse check.

Negative.

He was dying.

Start chest compressions. We, nurses, physicians, medical students, got in line while the attending physician stood at the foot of the bed, directing the code.

Like clockwork, it was my turn in line. I clasped my fingers and locked my elbows, and thumped on his chest to the beat of the song Staying Alive.

“Ah, ah, ah, ah, staying alive, staying alive.”

My song willing him to live. Willing him to stay with us.

We injected rounds of epinephrine, atropine: medications capable of jumpstarting his heart. There were temporary pauses in the mayhem to assess for a pulse, the return of a heartbeat. A bedside ultrasound was brought to the room to check for any cardiac activity – nothing.

Despite our efforts, there was no pulse. Nearly 30 minutes had passed, and it was finally called 19:06, time of death.

One by one, we left the room our hearts heavy. His nurse was the first to cry. Mascara dripping, eyes drenched, she was surrounded by fellow nurses.

Someone should let the family know; they’re in the waiting room, some stated thought aloud, overwhelmed with the recent events.

Another resident went to deliver the news. She was the second to cry. ‘It’s always hard telling the family,’ she whispered and wiped a lone tear as she rejoined us. Our medical student cried. She had never seen a code.

And, there I was. My eyes dry like a desert. I didn’t feel anything. I wasn’t sad, but I did feel compelled to comfort those around me. As I left the hospital that night, I thought, “This is it. Residency has changed me. I have no emotions anymore. I am numb.”

I drove to the grocery store, grabbed some food. I drove home. I felt fine. I was surprised that everyone else cried. Was I broken? I took a shower and began singing a song to myself. As the water cleansed my body, the death slowly began to hit me.

My sister called me. I answered. And, then, I lost it: “He died. He died,” I repeated. “Our patient died. I literally did CPR on this guy. We tried to save his life, and he died,” I repeated over and over. The tears streaming down my cheeks were cathartic. More than signifying a loss, the tears signified that I was still human, that I haven’t lost touch with reality. Residency hasn’t changed me. Death still affects me. I’m not numb. I’m human.

My tears were confirmation that I haven’t changed in that way. I was not calloused. He died. And I still felt it. I had a heart.

Maseray S. Kamara is a general surgery resident and can be reached on Instagram @drkamara.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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