There are loads of relatives surrounding bed twenty three, all in various stages of grief. In the six and a half days that I have been a doctor, I have learnt a great deal about people. The overriding lesson has been; people are different. While it will take some people several years to finally accept and move on with their lives, some will get stuck at sorrow and depression for years. Still, others will go from shock, to denial to anger, then guilt and to the final stage of acceptance in just six minutes!
I move to the bed and as if on cue, they all move away to a safe distance, the strong ones drag the really grief stricken away with them. For the thousandth time, I wish this hospital had curtains. Life has literally stopped. The chatter that is characteristic of the visiting hour is dead. I can feel the weight of eyes on my back as I bend over (pun) to examine her. The tell tale rise and fall of the chest is absent. She is still warm. Her limbs are still flexible, and her eyes are not glassy. Not yet. I put the stethoscope over her chest and listen keenly. I hold my breath and try slowing the thud thud of my own heart. No heartbeat. I shift the stethoscope to the next place on her chest and listen again, nothing. I shine the torch into her eyes; the pupils are large black rounds against a white background. She is dead. I hang the stethoscope around my neck and feel the neck. No pulses. She is dead. I pull the upper and lower lips together in a desperate attempt to close her mouth, there are many things that people try to tolerate, and a corpse with an open mouth is definitely not one of them.
As I pull the white sheet over her face, fresh wails begin. It is as if I have given them a go ahead to wail, inform other relatives, type long rest in peace-you fought so hard-messages on the face-book wall of the deceased go ahead, and plan for a burial. At this point, some of those who were stuck at shock move on the next stage, to denial.
I walk to the doctor’s room, clutching the ends of my stethoscope, wearing an expression that I cannot name. It is sadness and a determination to hold it together. You don’t need to know the patient at a personal level to feel sad, because sorrow floats. It is the tears of a the newly widowed wife that brings your own, the wails of a mother that makes you clench your teeth, the cries of a child who has lost a mother that makes you walk with your eyes wide open, unblinking for fear the tears will flow down your cheeks, and the patients will stop “respecting you”. So I push these feelings to the back of my mind. I will deal with it later. I know sooner or later this sadness will descend on me, meanwhile, I will write the death summary, then I will see the next patient. I will answer my phone with a smile.