Heart rate 52, 48, 44, 39. So enthralled with the monitor’s monotonous drone, I jumped in surprise when at last the room filled with the flatline’s empty wail. Heart rate 29, and the patient was gone. I peered quizzically around me – no one moved. Heads remained bent over charts, hands leafing through papers. The nurse beside me turned off the sound – “that happens”, she said – and all was quiet, peaceful chaos.
There have been certain moments in my life that I can still breathe and taste and touch as though they are gripped between my fingertips: when, as a young actress, I empathically announced my very first slate before a charmingly amused casting director; when a six-year-old version of myself was induced to sing Liza Minnelli’s ‘Cabaret’ in front of my very first, very real audience – an audience not like that composed of my multiple doggie action figures, who – I might add – were always quite impressed with my voice and swagger; when I sobbed with joy on opening the acceptance letter into the prestigious ‘Advanced Anatomy’; when I first pressed a scalpel upon a cadaver’s fleshy thigh and made that first, precise medial incision.
This day, however – the day that I took that first undaunted step within the walls of the ICU as a thirteen-year-old intern-shadow – was not only conducive in shaping the person that I have become, but imbedded in me an innate knowledge of life, as well as death. As if in a dream, I stood beside the paling body for an hour and watched as appliances were unplugged, linens were changed, and stats were recorded, until the eerily whistling coroners wheeled the body away.
I couldn’t tell anyone what happened that first night or how I felt about it. It was inexplicable, paradoxical – I was elated. I shook, I ran, I tried to expel the energy raging through me. I thought, ‘I can do anything now.’ It wasn’t until 1AM that I broke down and cried. I had seen three people die that day.
Five years later, I still confidently stride scrub-clad down the halls of that same bustling ICU. I have often come home after a shift to find myself unable to sleep, my head pounding with dumbstruck emptiness and thoughtfulness all at once. Sometimes I think of a girl my age who’d been in a vegetative state. Her mother had once asked me, “Are there miracles?” I told her I believe in the power of positive thoughts and good “juju”, but her daughter died all the same. I can’t truly articulate how deeply that impacted me – certainly I have a whole new sense of perspective. I understand how something can be both right and wrong. I’ve seen how people grieve and cope. But for the most part, I take this as a prime example of why the human essence in medicine is so vitally important to patient care: for the family of someone for whom there is little hope, it goes a long way to reach out to them – to explain, to understand, to comfort – even in the smallest of ways.
On sleepless nights I’ve sometimes contemplated death, which so ruthlessly consumes the unit of my undertaking. Over time, I’ve found a way to process it in the understanding that death is as much a confirmation of life as life is the agent of inevitable death. Many fear it; they cannot comprehend it. I, on the other hand, have always heartily believed that you are only afraid of what you don’t understand. Fear exists only in what is unknown, and with that which is known, one’s endeavors can never be objectified by ignorance. In the dying I have witnessed the ability to find within oneself what was once a benign and hidden unique essence which flourishes with strength and character in the face of finality.
There is no other existence that could satisfy my undying curiosity for the unknown. Thus, I have chosen a career in medicine, not only “to help people”, but because I wish to be always learning, always expanding, always delving deep into the dark with open eyes and open heart. Unadulterated knowledge – to reap the unending benefits of life, to always be a student, to expand as a human being, to know just to know, out of unquenched curiosity – that is why I have chosen to embark upon this deliciously tumultuous path.