Throughout the year, the Pre-med Hospice Program has allowed me to see a different side of medicine. A caring, patient-oriented side of healthcare in which death is mourned, but accepted. It has shown me that sometimes the best medicine is not full of interventions and aggressive treatments, but rather making patients as comfortable as possible as they face the inevitability of death. Terminal illnesses are seen everyday by most patients on the floor, and while some decline rapidly and others slowly, each life remains precious. In fact, one of my favorite patients declined expeditiously, reminding me of the fragility of life.
Upon entering, his bright green tongue flickered a, “Hello, I’ve never seen you here before.” This patient’s kind, gentle manner initially stuck out. We were there to bathe him and as he sorely turned from one side to another, I held his hand as the aide tended to his sores. After, he joked and talked with me- sharing details about his work as a local coiffeur, filling the room with his soft-spoken, shallow laugh. Although he had no family left, he emanated joy as he shared that if he felt better he would gladly braid my long, thick hair as well as the aides. We continued to talk about his career and other aspects of his life before he became sick, the whole time maintaining a state of pleasantness and mutual respect. Before I knew it, it was time to go. I said my goodbyes not knowing whether I would see him again.
Unfortunately, the next week he was still on the unit, but he was unresponsive, in a state somewhere between this life and the next. As I looked at him, his thin body that had laughed so vehemently with me the week before just lay there feeble and fragile. His face had sunk in and the handle hanging above his bed, a feature he loved to use to help turn himself, hung there untouched and unused by him. The room was filled with an eerie feeling, and as I looked at him, I could not help but to miss the man I had seen before. The warm, laughter-loving man I enjoyed talking to was no longer there. Instead, a shell of him remained. My heart was heavy as I softly whispered goodbye. The next week I found out that he had died.
This kind of story was not an uncommon occurrence on the hospice floor. I saw many patients decline, remaining motionless shells of their prior selves. Seeing this happen, especially to the patient mentioned above, taught me many valuable lessons that I will forever take away from my experience in the program. First, life should be cherished and valued. We have no idea how long we get on this earth and should never take that fact for granted. Remembering that lesson has helped me to be more kind with others in both my personal and social life. Next, the value of touch was illuminated through this opportunity. It is so important to touch patients’ hands whether it is supporting them while they are in pain or just letting them know you are human too. We all crave touch and that desire never goes away, even as you die. Lastly, compassion is pertinent. Whether its empathy in dealing with a patient’s family or when helping the patient themselves, one must always deal with others in a way you would want your very own loved ones to be treated.
In summary, the hospice program has been an invaluable experience. I met some great people and found out how much I enjoy caring for others. So much so, that I plan on continuing to volunteer there next year. I truly believe that this program has made me a better, more genuine person. Finally, it has provided me with tools I will use in my own private interactions as well as when I am a doctor.