Only a Moment

First off, I should start by saying that I have no experience with death other than at the Forbes Hospice. So my first experience with it came as a realization, a reality check about what it means to end. A winter storm had coated the Pittsburgh area with a large blanket of snow, and the nurses at Forbes Hospice were surprised that I managed to trek through it just to volunteer that particular Sunday. When I arrived that day in February, there was a woman already on her last breath. I arrived in time to hear a nurse explain to her family over the phone that her condition had dramatically changed overnight and that they should hurry over as soon as possible. Of course, with the rough weather and snowy roads, their journey would be much slower than they wished. When the nurse hung up the phone, she asked if anyone could sit in the room with the patient; as her family did not want her to be alone at such a critical time. I, trying to be the courageous leader that medical school wants me to be, blindly shot my hand up and volunteered, unaware of the impact this decision would have on me.
Before this day, I did not realize how slow one could breathe. I’ve been a wrestler all of my life and taken organic chemistry exams, but nothing compared to the worry of waiting for Lily’s chest to lift up. Literally dripping from sweat, I sat alone in her room. A place so quiet that I believe I heard my own anxiety. But what was I thinking about? Not about how I hoped that Lily would go to heaven or that she would be comfortable in her last moments. No. All I could think about was one thing. Who was I to watch this unfold? Who was I to hold her hand? I didn’t deserve this… this honor. I am not worthy to be the last person to hold Lily’s hand while she was still alive. I felt guilty, ashamed even. I even forgot to ask the nurse what her name was before I walked in her room. Funny, I spent all this time worrying about when she would stop breathing, that when it ceased I wasn’t really focused on it. But there I sat, with my hand on top of the palm of a lifeless Lily. For a while I couldn’t stop staring, wondering where all of her went. It wasn’t until one of the nurses walked in, that I even got up or took my hand off of hers. I wish I could go back and tell Lily in her last moments that her family and friends loved her, that the nurses loved her, that I loved her. But, I can’t. This one moment taught me more about death than all of the other documentaries, lessons, books, and poems I’ve seen or read in my entire life. Death is not some grand spectacle like directors make it seem in the movies or on TV. It isn’t a magnificent stage that one dramatically stands on while he or she speaks out about his or her triumphs, regrets, or fears. It’s just a moment. And like all other moments, it lasts only an instant. If one is not ready for that moment, if one does not prepare with exclamations of love to family members, hugs goodbye, stories of younger years and fascinating travels; then it’ll be too late. You should always tell someone you love them, because death only lasts an instant.
When I was younger, I thought being a doctor meant curing people, yanking souls away from death’s doorstep and back onto the earth as a healthy human being. Well, not anymore. I know my job will be to make people as comfortable as possible. Whether that means curing them of their ailment or easing their pain through a laugh, hug, or a just a warm smile. I know I cannot, and will not save everyone. But I know I’ll do everything in my power as a doctor, and as a human being, to make sure everyone that walks through my door is as comfortable, happy, and in the least amount of pain, both physically and emotionally, as possible. I will listen to them, I will laugh with them, I will cry with them. But most importantly, I will be there with them and not be consumed by a bedside chart. I will treat patients, people, not conditions. There are many aspects to being a doctor, but at the top of my list lies the need to care, the ability to listen, and the desire to help.