My patient has died

My patient has died. This is a statement I have heard too often. A statement I too have said, countless times.

My previous post was on lessons to learn from death, and yet I begin another series on death.

Wow Mueni , morbid much?’

Okay, let me explain myself.

See nobody really prepared us for this when we got into medical school. An environment of great highs and great lows; restoration of health and saddening deaths, patients walking out of hospital while others wheeled off to the mortuary.

Well, maybe they did, since hospitals are known to have an aura of death lingering in their corridors, amidst desensitized health professionals that find death ‘almost’ normal.

Almost normal, not to say they have hardened hearts but to say that they see the face of death so often that it doesn’t terrify them as much as time goes by. However, to many, their reaction may seem cold.

How can you act so normal and yet my loved one has died? Do you really feel my pain?”

Well, I am here to say we feel it, we are human after all. Being a medical student, I cannot say that ‘my’ patient died. Simply because there is a long chain of people handling the patient before they get to me. From the consultant, to the resident, to the nurses in charge, the nutritionist… Then somewhere down the line, to the medical student . Who probably clerked and examined them and tried to follow up on their management as far as they could.

Regardless of where you are in that long chain, I must say, death still hits you. From what I’ve observed with a few years of being in the wards, dealing with death as a medic doesn’t get easier. I guess everyone just picks up their own coping mechanisms as they go. (Cue alcoholism that’s rampant among medical professionals, but that’s a story for another day.)

What prompted me to begin this series you ask?

Well, in my second week at the New Born Unit during my paediatric rotation in 5th year, my group moved from the room with almost discharged babies (by that I mean those who were getting better) to those in critical condition in the Newborn HDU( High Dependancy Unit.)

It was a drastic change since we moved from a room full of crying babies(and boy didn’t they cry when hungry😅) to a room where the loudest sounds were those of the ventilation machines and monitors. I could only imagine the emotional toll it took on new mothers seeing their children in those cots and incubators, some as young as 28 weeks preterm.

We were assigned the task of daily updating the babies’ files with a summary of their progress. We then divided the cots amongst ourselves and got to work.

I had about 3 cots to handle, so I went around to check on the babies names so that I could get their files and start on my work.

Cot number one was okay: the baby was in respiratory distress and on a CPAP(Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine to help them breathe. The baby looked stable and so I moved on to cot number 2.

In it was a baby with congenital hydrocephalus( in lay terms, fluid buildup within the brain). I had handled a similar baby before in the previous room, so I wasn’t as shocked about it. Although I noted that the baby was pale and didn’t make any spontaneous movements. I didn’t take too much notice of this and moved on to cot 3.

A build-up of fluid in the brain cavities leads to enlargement of the head.

A few minutes later though , I overheard the residents saying “Yeah, they’re going to come and collect the body.”

I wondered , “Which one? I hadn’t seen any dead baby as I went round the cots.”

Which baby?” I asked the residents.

The one with hydrocephalus.”

Thoughts racing. You mean to tell me that the baby I saw a few minutes ago was already dead?

Waiiit..

Surely not…

That’s when it hit me.

Baby was pale.
Baby wasn’t moving.
Baby was fully swaddled.

My patient had died.

Regardless of the fact that I had not yet fully interacted with that baby, I felt it. The shock that accompanies death still hit me.

This is just one of my many experiences.
I’d love to share similar stories with you.
To let you into the mind of a medic in relation to death of a patient.

I’m so grateful for the writers in this series, my friends and classmates, who will narrate personal stories of their encounters with death…How the smell of death hangs around their noses. How the pain of losing someone hangs over their shoulders. How the weight of proper patient care instils fear of doing the wrong thing.

Our idea isn’t to make anyone lose hope; there are very many successful stories of treatment that bring great joy to medics.

But the coin doesn’t land one side only, and here’s a platform to let you into this statement that carries a lot of weight.

“My patient has died.”

Stay tuned every alternate day as I share their stories.

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Soli Dei Gloria.

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