Death Is Hard

In the past I have found it easy to say that it is harder to see a sick, hospitalized child than a sick, hosptitalized elderly patient. It is easy to reason that the senior citizen has lived a full life while the child has his future ahead of him. But I think this position ignores the viewpoint of the patient’s family. Sure, sometimes a family is prepared for the death of a dying grandfather who has lived a long life and is going out on good terms. But few are ever prepared for a tragic death that comes on suddenly — no matter what age it happens.

Recently I saw a patient who I shall refer to as Mrs. B. We were not the primary team. I saw her as a consult after she had been in the hospital for a rather extended period of time. At the time the consult came in the team was pressed for time so we split up the duties. I would go and talk to the patient while my colleague would put together a consul note summarizing the hospital course and patient’s past medical history using the patient record as a source.

Without reading anything about the patient I went off to find Mrs. B. All I knew about her was that she had been hospitalized for quite some time and that she was fighting an infection that had spread to the blood. As I walked up to her bed she lie silently with her eyes open. I asked her how she was doing but couldn’t make out what she was saying. I tried to ask her in Spanish but she only responded with a more excited mumbling sound.

I realized that I wouldn’t be able to take a history from her. That sort of thing is difficult in non-communcating patients. So I proceeded to perform a quick physical exam. I noticed scleral icterus (jaundiced, yellow eyes) and a few skin wounds. But nothing else really jumped out at me. I left, but not before looking over her chart and collecting her vital signs for the last 24 hours.

When we began rounding our attending began writing out Mrs. B’s information across the large white board that hung in the workroom. Everything we had been able to find from the review of the patient record went on the board. We dissected and discussed the details and the big picture. And, after almost two hours, our attending decided it was time to go and see the patient.

We paused at Mrs. B’s door to pull out some gowns. A nurse ran up to us and whispered, “She just died. The family is inside.” And, while looking at the nearest clock she added, “She died about an hour ago.”

I was shocked. I didn’t know what to think. I had just seen her and touched her just over two hours ago. And now she was gone. At the time I saw her, I had no idea how sick she was. And my physical exam didn’t tell me she was so close to death. During our discussion, though, our attending noted how bad her labs looked and that she would probably benefit from palliative care.

I don’t know how the family took her death. I didn’t go inside the room. I didn’t come back later. To me her death was sudden. I was not expected it so soon. But death, it seems, waits for no one. When it’s time, it’s time.

It is hard to care for sick children in the hospital. But I think it can also be hard to care for sick adults who face tragic endings as well.

Death is hard. Period.


Fitness, Health, & Relationships

A few years ago I heard of husbands (or fiances) requiring of their brides(-to-be) a contractual agreement to maintain their figure throughout their marriage. I laughed. Ridiculous, I thought to myself. Even as a male who accepts that males are visual creatures, I thought this to be a very shallow and superficial thing to ask of someone you love.

I won’t pretend to know what the motivation was behind those requirements. If they were solely for physical appearances, then I’m still in disagreement with them.

But almost 2 years after I’ve started regularly seeing patients (even as a medical student), I wonder if that sort of requirement is a bad thing. But before you call for the firewood and stake, hear me out.

Preventable medical diseases make up more than half of the medical problems plaguing this country. And in the short time I have been on the wards, I have watched as patients and their families suffered because they did not take care of themselves. Pain and suffering because people didn’t prioritize a healthy lifestyle — for whatever reason. Perhaps they just didn’t know any better. Perhaps they just didn’t prioritize it. Perhaps they just didn’t think about it.

One thing I have said to classmates is that being in the hospital and caring for our senior citizens has got me terrified about growing old. It is true that we only see the sickest, and that those that take care of themselves are able to avoid many of the outcomes/conditions that freak me out. Nevertheless, I see how bad it gets when one doesn’t take care of one’s self. I see it in the end-stages.

I am not advocating maintaining a figure solely for aesthetic purposes. That is just a plus. I am for being healthy. A couple weeks ago, I decided that for this coming new year I wanted to commit to radically changing my diet and exercise habits. I reasoned that starting in July, I will be seeing my own patients. And I cannot sit there trying to convince patients to eat healthy and exercise regularly if I am not willing to do the same.

And so, I have been reading more about nutrition. I am hoping to plan out menus for myself because I realize that diet is crucial to the picture of health.

But I recently thought to myself that the best gift I could give to a wife, children, or anyone else I love, is myself. I owe it to them to hang around for as long as I can.

They say that men need to feel like they are providing for their family. What is more important than providing yourself and your time? I almost feel like it’d be irresponsible of me to start a family if I wasn’t doing everything I can do stick around for as long as possible.

And so I’m not looking at this from a vanity standpoint. I’m looking at this from a health standpoint. Because I’ve seen and watched what the end-points of preventable diseases can look like. And THAT scares me.

Perhaps the requirement to keep a figure is a wrong thing. Perhaps, though, the motivation behind the requirement is what should be scrutinized.

So here’s to a new year. To a radical change. To a healthier year.

I partly write this here so that I will be accountable. They say that is what happens when you share your goals with others.

I also write this because it’s always fun to do things with company.



I used to say that I am immune to tears. I grew up with a baby sister. I saw many tears. And admittedly, some were caused by me.

But I have realized that I am not as immune to them as I thought.

I am only immune to some of them. The kind that are manipulative. You know the kind. The kind that flows like a never-ending river when a child is not getting his or her way. The ones that go along with the sad, puppy-dog eyes that beg for you to give in. These kinds of tears I can handle. I can laugh at them because I will not be manipulated like that. I refuse.

But then there are the other kinds of tears. The tears that flow due to deep, heart-breaking pain. I realized this for the first time when I stood in a patient’s room. The patient lay in the bed, sedated by medications. The attending stood in front of me, trying to explain the circumstances to the family members.

I remember seeing the tears. I also remember hearing the guttural, almost-primal screams of agony and despair. The words they cried out weren’t even in English. But pain needs to translating. Theirs was a pain borne from unexpected outcome. The patient had been discharged home just days before. That night I had worked on the admission and, with the help a translator, been able to communicate with the patient. But over the course of 10 hours the patient had deteriorated and pain and anguish was what was left in the room.

I physically removed myself from the room. I had seen sad situations many times before but this one got to me. I could feel my eyes start to water. My throat got tight. The air was thick and heavy. I needed to take a few breaths.

I used to say that I am immune to tears. I cannot anymore.