In September, I had the chance to meet Madge. Madge had been at the care center for a while before I began to visit her every Saturday. She was always either sleeping in her bed or chair. I tried waking her up at first, but when that didn’t work, I tried visiting at different times of the day, hoping to catch her when she was awake. At a certain point, I just decided to sit with her. I would go in, sit in the old wooden chair next to her bed, and play Edith Piaf (an artist I was told she was fond of) on my phone until I had to leave.
Madge’s room was filled with photographs of her family and friends. She had sticky notes stuck to each picture with the name of the individual in the photo. Occasionally, I would visit and Madge would be awake. However, our interactions consisted mainly of soft smiles and incoherent conversation. From what I could understand and from the photographs in her room, I figured that Madge thought I was her granddaughter. She would talk about what sounded like inside jokes, and would bring up names that I was unfamiliar with. Whatever I didn’t understand, I would respond to with a small smile and general response to appease her until she fell back asleep.
This program has not only provided me with additional clinical experience, but has also allowed me to interact with patients on a more personal level than I would be able to experience through other hospital-based volunteer programs. Beyond experience, this volunteer program has also given me the time and resources to reflect on death and what death means in the greater context of life.
Coming into this program, I was honestly expecting something grand in the sense that I expected to uncover some great truth about death. And in some ways, I did, but grand is not the word I would use to describe it now. Life and death themselves are not grand. Life is a series of moments, and death is the final moment. What is grand, however, are the relationships we have formed with family and friends and the memories that have given meaning to our lives. In death, we find peace knowing that we remain in the memories of those we have formed relationships with.
Leaving this program, I am taking with me a new understanding of life and a greater appreciation for the relationships formed during my lifetime. I believe that understanding death as a time to reflect on the beauty of life and the meaning of formed relationships will enable me to become a more introspective physician. One who sees death not as a loss, but as an opportunity to appreciate what we have gained in life. I am grateful to have had this experience, to have formed these relationships with patients, and to have taken these moments with patients and to have turned them into my own memories.