Late this morning, while finishing up the last of my work and hoping for an early exit from the hospital, I rounded a corner of a hallway to have my heart sink within me. For as soon as I rounded that corner, a group of nurses at the other end of the hall turned and said "there's a doctor!"
This is almost never a good thing. But in response to their earnest gesturing, I hurried to the room to see a very pale woman lying on a bed gaping at the ceiling with eyes closed. Meanwhile, in one ear I was hearing "just checked on her, was smiling a minute ago," and in the other I was hearing "there's no pulse on telemetry, just bradyed down and stopped, I think she might be DNR."
I am, in looking back, pleased with my calmness as I said "bring the code cart and her chart, see if she's DNR/DNI." By the time I reached the patient's bedside though, a nurse was standing in the doorway with the chart, telling me this patient was DNR/DNI. The code cart was pushed back to its familiar home and the crowd started to disperse.
I told the nurse to page the resident of the primary team and the staff physician as I felt the carotid for a pulse. Feeling none, and hearing no heartbeat, I realized I had just seen my first death in the hospital. First death ever, actually, which is an odd thing, I think, a sign of our times, a mark of the twenty first century, in which people die in small rooms away from home, attended by a select group of people to whom the experience becomes familiar. And until you join that group, you are insulated from the event, one that comes to us all.
The intern from the primary team drifted in. Though it may not have been the right thing to do, I let him pronounce the death.
"Time of death, July 17, eleven fifty AM."
It would be false to say this affected me greatly. I had never seen the patient before, never spoken with her, never heard her story, except her diagnosis. And I wonder what to make of that. I came into medicine partly because it allowed me to treat people, to be around people, who are dealing with real questions, and to deal with them myself. Somehow the presence of the "unveiled mysteries of life and death" seemed to add profundity to my experiences.
I thought as a medical student. As an intern, I'm harried to the point that thought beyond "what do I need to do now" is difficult. If I'm not moving, there's something wrong. I'm so used to hearing my senior resident say "what aren't you writing this down? You should be writing this down, Nathan" that it has become a bit of a joke. All this action, all this doing, keeps me from thinking.
And so, as I stood in that room, a little nervous, a little relieved that I didn't have to run a code, and a little awestruck by the whole situation, I wasn't really processing. I wasn't having grand thoughts voiced by Longfellow or grim ones by Thomas. I was tired, and after the details were passed on to the primary team, I went to grab lunch before heading back to work.