My relationship with death has been been rocky to be honest. As an intern I struggled with death and dying; it wasn’t unusual for my husband to find me sobbing in bed after a patient had died at work. I would dwell on the patient’s final moments (what were they thinking? were they content? had they seen it coming?).
I would agonise over how their family would be feeling that night after losing their mother/brother/wife/child. I would become anxious about my own mortality – when would I die? Would it be unpleasant like the one I had witnessed today?
By nature, I am an over thinker who wears my heart firmly on my sleeve, and death was certainly a topic I ruminated on heavily in my early years as a doctor. As a resident I dealt with death countless times. I had instances where I saw death approach slowly from a distance. I saw death jump rapidly from left field; no warning, no announcement. And I saw death creep towards us, so surreptitiously that none of us, including the doctors, knew it was on the horizon.
I’ve seen people die “well” – comfortably and with dignity, and I’ve seen them die distressingly; their families permanently scarred by the suffering their loved one experienced. I’ve left hospital with a tight feeling in my chest devastated that we, the medical profession, hadn’t given the patient and their family more dignity, support, warmth, comfort. I have seen us as a profession deal with death and dying beautifully, with care, but I have also seen it done very, very, poorly.
Death, and dealing with it, is part of being a doctor. And despite what many people in the community think, we do not know exactly when death is coming. Many times, patients have asked “how long do you think we have Preeya? The oncologist said 6-8 weeks, what’s your opinion?” Honestly, I don’t know is what I have to tell them (and I secretly wonder why I don’t have this crystal ball my colleagues do).