Shining a New Light on Death

When I started working as a nursing assistant at a nursing home, it became clear to me that death was something I was going to have to face as a medical professional, but I always tried pushing off the thought of dealing with it until it was absolutely imperative. Coming in to work and finding out that one of my residents had died or was put on hospice always gave me a sinking feeling, and I never knew the best way to approach the resident or their family. Now that I have gone through this program and been exposed to so many new perspectives on death, I have a completely different mindset when working with hospice patients and their families. Spending time with someone in hospice now feels like a privilege rather than a burden because I feel like I can truly make a difference in their final days even if that means simply being a supportive presence.

One of my most meaningful interactions was with a patient from Italy. She spoke mostly Italian, but I could still understand her English pretty well. As soon as I told her that I studied abroad in Italy this past summer, I saw her eyes light up with excitement. We immediately connected, and she shared stories about how much she loved growing up in such a beautiful place. I could tell that her mood had brightened, and every time I mentioned another place I traveled to, she wanted to hear more about it. Being able to bring her mind to a better place and share a little bit of happiness with her in her final hours was something I will never forget, especially because I found out that she died shortly after my visit.

My time as a hospice volunteer has taught me not to be afraid of death, but to embrace the inevitable and to focus on what I actually can control, which is providing support and making the patient feel as comfortable as possible. So many pre-med students only focus on one aspect of medicine, preserving a life, but I have realized that this is only half of the picture, and it is not always the most imperative. Having this new outlook and knowing that death does not always equate to failure is an invaluable lesson that I will certainly carry into my future as a physician.

In his paper, “The Lesson of Impermanence,” Dr. Sunita Puri explains, “Accepting that life is finite wouldn’t prevent me from drawing upon science to diagnose and treat disease…But I wondered if it would make it easier for me to endure the inevitability of change and loss that both my patients and I would experience.” Death is a natural part of life, and it is not always something that needs to be fought at all costs. Understanding and accepting this early on will not only help me care for patients as a future physician, but it will also make it easier for patients and their families to deal with difficult and new situations. This program has strengthened my desire to pursue a career in medicine and taught me how to properly care for patients and families that I would have otherwise felt very overwhelmed by. I am so grateful for the opportunity to see death in a new light and to explore a different side of the medical field through my experience with hospice care.