Cultivating Compassion in Medicine

Unconditional love is a dwindling privilege. I was blessed with a formidable support system. My grandma considered me as her “weakness,” but I always strive to be her strength as she was to me. Last year was the last time I saw her. Disheveled, emaciated, forlorn. Trying to memorize her face was futile. My mind was distracted reliving the fond memories. I couldn’t fathom fulfilling my dream of medicine without her by my side. But, I had to.

Death is an inevitable yet unexpected process of life. Talking about death has taught me the value of time, life, and simple conversation with people you love. When my grandma passed, I was stoic. I couldn’t stomach the idea of her being gone and this took a toll on me mentally without me even realizing it. However, this experience really opened my eyes to the fact that physicians experience death on a daily basis. Dealing with death is probably the hardest thing physicians have to face.

Medicine is often characterized as being a profession based solely on facts used to diagnose people of potentially terminal illnesses. Hence, medical professionals are seen as solely intelligent scholars of information. Superficially yes, but to a medical professional certainly not. Medical professionals are storytellers, artists who seek to explore the facets of each human. Each patient has a unique experience, a chapter in the story that offers a keyhole into humans. This is the reason why medicine transcends and distinguishes itself from other professions of science as it allows us to explore our intrinsic humanity.

I decided to take part in the VA Premed Hospice Program to get myself out of my comfort zone. I wanted to experience death. I wanted to experience keeping my emotions limited because I thought this is how physicians act. The program is not only working at the hospice but reading the prompts and attending the discussion sessions. These prompts and discussion sessions really allowed me to understand death in its raw beauty. During these discussions I was able to open up about my grandma’s death and come to terms with my feelings. I was able to understand that death must be dealt with love and this is how physicians must deal with terminally ill patients. Death is a key facet of our humanity and talking about death is how we begin to explore our intrinsic humanity.

Through both the discussions and prompts I was able to really understand death. Talking about death has never been something I have been comfortable with but being able to talk about death at the discussions really opened me up to the subject. Talking about death has helped me associate the idea of death with freedom, peace, and a light instead of loss, despair, and agony. Death is not the end but a beginning. It is a process that must be accompanied by love and companionship from those around them.

The prompt that influenced me the most was the last one “What our cells teach us about death”. It is completely true that much of us are talking about and experiencing death around us. Since humans spend much of our lives denying death, we try to evade it. This is in part the reason why physicians find the need to continuously offer treatments to terminal patients when they know it will be futile. Through this prompt and the program I have understood that Hospice is an option for these patients rather than putting them through treatments that may destroy the quality of life of the patient. This program has transformed my idea of death and the way I will view it in the future as a physician. During the time when my grandma had cancer she had an in home hospice-like caretaker who gave her companionship and took care of her needs. At that point of her life, she didn’t need a physician to cure her of the cancer, but someone who can provide her comfort during her last days. Being a part of the program has opened my eyes to death and confirmed my aspirations to become both of those personas as a physician.