by Shoshana Ungerleider on October 19, 2015
It wasn’t until just before graduation that we talked about what to do when a patient is dying. A single three-hour seminar with a group of specialists from the palliative care service; at least it was mandatory.
The presenters were young physicians, and they seemed kind and thoughtful. But I wondered why anyone would devote their medical career to end-of-life care. My classmates and I had spent years of medical school sharpening our history-taking skills, learning to recognize heart murmurs, memorizing the drugs used to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, even cancer. In the final months of school, I’d worked in the ICU, taking care of critically ill patients who required breathing tubes and life-sustaining machines. I’d learned how to perform intubations and place central lines. I marveled at how much I was able to do to help sick people. Nearly all of us became doctors to keep patients alive, to treat them.
I thought: The ultimate treatment failure is death. I graduated medical school and moved on.
Except for a cadaver in my first-year anatomy lab, I didn’t see a dead body until the second month of my medical internship. When I finally did, it was my first overnight shift; I was the sole intern charged with cross-covering all of the medical patients. The pager never stopped beeping. I handled issues as they arose. I solved problems. But at some point in the night, a nurse called and said I needed to “come pronounce room 556.” My heart sank.