Rotation 101: My First Goodbye

By: Punita Shroff, OMS-III

After spending months studying for the boards, passing and then finishing the intro to clinical medicine, it felt like a weight had been lifted. I was finally a third year. It was only a few weeks ago that I walked into the hospital in my newly minted white coat. I felt some kind of renewed purpose, a breath of fresh air after spending the better part of the first two years of medical school studying and memorizing facts.

As fresh-faced third years, we envision ourselves in capes – Superman style – we live in this ideal world where we’re going to save lives, cure ailments and bring life into this world. But as soon as I stepped into the hospital, I soon learned that those ideals are replaced with the honest reality that not everyone can be saved or cured and that as grateful we are to bring those into this world, we must come to learn to say goodbye to others.

Within the second week of my medicine rotation, I saw a patient die. It wasn’t glamourous or even in slow motion like it occurs in the movies sometimes, but the minutes that passed as I watched a man catch his last breaths are forever embedded in my mind. Old age, severe dementia and respiratory failure was the only information I was given. I barely knew the patient, but on that Saturday morning my on-call team was responsible for our patients and anothers team’s patients. He was a patient on the other team who was supposed to be discharged that day but who had suddenly presented with progressive respiratory failure.

I wasn’t prepared to hear the words, “He’s going to die soon”; even uttering those words seemed wrong, a painful brutal reality. We all hope in these circumstances that some miracle will come about. Sometimes there really is nothing that can be done, and this was one of those situations. We made him comfortable, and with the request of the family stopped any orders of tests. So my team patiently watched, we watched him catch his last breath, and we silently waited. We stood supportive in the room as his family came in one by one. In those fleeting yet unforgettable moments, his family poured their love and emotion to their loved one and bid their final goodbye. It was gut-wrenching.

As future physicians, we’re going to see patients on a daily basis. At some point, life becomes a routine and for some, perhaps even mechanical. We’ll see patients progress, deteriorate or even worse, pass away. We’ll hear about horror stories of doctors becoming cynical or jaded. That is a sad reality. I hope though that my story and hopefully your stories bring light to what’s most important; these patients are human too and that for every patient there’s a family of supporters.

As those ideals of medicine eventually fade, don’t let your compassion and love for what brought you to medicine change as well. It’s what will make us all better doctors someday.