It’s a privilege to care for patients and their loved ones, especially at the end of life. Even when we can’t cure, we can always comfort.
The ICU is a place where life and death intertwine. “She’ll die in a couple of minutes,” the attending said. We stopped running the list on the board. Last night, Ms. L’s family had come to say their final goodbyes. A colorful unicorn stuffed animal was left over her belly. Her grandchildren loved Ms. L’s magical tales about unicorns at nighttime. The bright colors of the unicorn contrasted with the solemn light green of her hospital gown and white walls of her room. Later, she was extubated in the presence of her loved ones.
The next day, I pronounced my first death alongside my senior resident. I placed the stethoscope on her chest and was met with deafening silence. My eyes wandered to the stuffed animal, the only object that shed brightness and happiness. Ms. L was officially pronounced dead that afternoon.
My experience with Ms. L brought up feelings of sadness, solemnity, and respect . . . but mostly humility. Placing the soft unicorn over her belly once more, I thought about Ms. L. She arrived unresponsive and remained so until her death. But her legacy was alive with her family and friends, and I was able to know Ms. L through them.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Medicine goes beyond curing.
This includes showing compassion and empathy to patients and their loved ones, perhaps especially at the time of death.
2. We’re privileged to be a part of many people’s lives during these difficult moments.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.