On Death and Dying: Thoughts of a 20-something-year-old on the life before the dying process

I started out sophomore year as the eager pre-med student ready to take on all the challenges that came with the workload. When given the opportunity to interact with real patients I was really excited. But I was also terrified. I did not know how I was going to deal with death. I have always thought of myself as an emotional person and I knew that by the end of the program I would have grown attached to the people I visited. Coming into the program I had experience being in an operating room and watching surgeries that were ultimately not successful. But for some reason it was hard for me to grasp that the people on the operating tables existed beyond the hours they were in that room. In a logical sense, yes, I knew those were people but there was something about the place that strips those people from their human-ness.

My experience doing this hospice program was very different than what I had expected. From the start I met wonderful people that were so much more than patients in my eyes. Debbie and Ann were often the highlight of my week and always put a smile on my face. I thought maybe experiencing their passing away would be the hardest part of being in this program. I did not experience that with either one of them but I did have a lot of powerful confrontations with dying.

I was sitting in Ann’s room one day, listening to her talk when she made the following comment, “I have to make sure I tell this story so I won’t forget it. I’ve been starting to forget.” I felt like there was a tight fist clenched around my heart. I realized then, for the first time, how hard the process of dying must be. The Ann I knew and had grown to love was now fighting to keep moments that define her gleeful character alive. I had never realized how aware people could be that they are aging and forgetting their pasts.

Sitting in Debbie’s room during the second semester – after having gotten to know how much she loved diving when she was younger and how she enjoys listening to the sounds of waves – I found myself looking at someone who no longer smiled vibrantly when she saw my face, but instead wanted to fall asleep. The first time I walked into her room after winter break I could tell how much she had aged in the last month. The same Debbie that would tell me her teenage stories in present tense and who loved eating cookies as much as me only wanted to sleep.

I am finishing this second semester of volunteering wishing I had more time; wishing they had more time. Not more time to survive but more time to live the same experiences they now reminisce about. I wish I could take Ann on the road trip she said she’d love to do and that she could form many more memories that she’d gladly tell more kids about. But I also finish off this second semester extremely thankful. Through this program I realized how much quality of life matters more than how long someone lives. I was able to see first hand that being on a surgery table may not be the best option for a lot of people. I finally understood that doctors have to work on helping their patients live rather than just survive.