Lessons from the Grim Reaper

While death is constantly lurking everywhere, few really appreciate its impact on life. The latter should include those who had a close brush with it, survivors of an experience approximating genocide proportions; and then those in the medical field. People die, others are born- it is the continuum of life: a cycle, one that many people simply resign to.

Why not take a chance to really think about death- reflect upon the grim reaper brandishing his hideous scythe, cracking his inter-phalangeal joints, brooding in wait for his next victim? It’s a rather hideous thing to do isn’t it? In the normal world, it is a preserve for masons, people on the verge of a psychotic break or those with suicidal tendencies. From my perspective however, it is a necessary undertaking sometimes- a chance at rebirth.

It was Friday last week, a day that had several parallel autopsy examinations. With a tinge of irony, I have to say that the morgue was alive with activity. Medical students, some eager for knowledge others eager to have their log books signed before embracing the Friday spirit- had chromed the autopsy room. On the business side of the room were several cadavers all due for forensic autopsies. Soon enough, tools and hands went to work and after processes branded with terms like ‘Y incision’ and ‘evisceration en masse’, there was blood, brain and gut everywhere.

A layman’s perspective of the scene would be… well: I suppose a layman would have fainted on sight before he even had the chance to formulate a perspective worth noting. But we were there, taking notes, listening intently to the pathologist… hanging onto her every word, oblivious of the grotesque sight before us, the stench, and the obvious social awkwardness of such a gathering. We were there to learn.

From how she was describing grotesque injuries using phrases such as ‘beautiful contusions’ and ‘beautiful hairline fractures’, learn we did indeed. Mortui vivos docent. That’s a Latin maxim commonplace among anatomists and pathologists whose meaning is ‘the dead shall teach the living’. The ‘living’ here pointing to students of medicine. The lessons of course revolve around the why of death and how to avert or postpone it for as long as possible. But what of life- does death not teach us how to live?

We hardly choose to see it that way. Many of us are left stuck in the sorrow it brings. ‘It robbed us of our beloved,’ we say, then curse and move on. Like medical students oblivious of the social awkwardness of their learning ‘predicament’, we are oblivious of the fact that we have been granted yet another day for a reason. Instead of living today for a better tomorrow, we choose to live like there is no tomorrow. That’s the ‘YOLO perspective’, which, just like death is very much misunderstood. As I made my final remarks on my note book concerning the autopsy, this kept ringing in my mind.

This morning again, it dawned on me how much life is a blessing. Though death is final, it does not make us equal. It only delineates those who will remain forever remembered from those who will soon fade from the memories of the living. As I press my shirt in preparation for the day’s activities, I notice that the water compartment of the iron box is leaking. The thought of two hundred and something volts of electricity coursing through my body nudges me to detach it from the appliance. That is not how I plan to die. I’d imagine my last day to be somewhat similar to this…

[They finally find his body, postured as though he was facing his assailants. He had bled out while fighting. His visage: firm and unyielding. His hand was still wrapped around his beloved Colt revolver. After taking in the sight, one of them manages to solemnly talk] “He held his ground so the rest could get to safety. This is where he made his last stand. He was brave to the very end.” [Insert instrumental evoking patriotic emotions here]

That’s just a thought. The inference is this- if there is anything the dead want from us it is that we live, live abundantly and then, be immortal.

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Sitting Duck

A general practitioner, a pediatric physician, a psychiatrist, a surgeon and a pathologist set out for duck hunting one day. Shot guns in hand, they found a nice spot to lay in wait.

 

As the first duck flew within range, the GP trained his gun then hesitated saying, “Wait a minute, is that a duck? I need a second opinion…” The duck flew away.

 

A second duck approached the range. This time the pediatrician called dibs. He took aim but just before firing, he noted, “It sure does look like a duck, but what if it has babies?” As he contemplated, the duck flew past.

 

Another duck came in sight. The psychiatrist who was next in line took aim then hesitated as he thought out loud, “I know that is a duck, but does it know that it is a duck?” Before he could make up his mind, the duck was gone.

 

After a while, another duck flew within range and this time the surgeon took aim. ‘BOOM!’ and the duck fell into the ground. As the ringing noise in their ears died out, the surgeon nudged the pathologist saying, “Go confirm what it is.”

The Immaculate Conception

A mother and her daughter were at the gynecologists office. The concerned mother asked the gynecologist to examine her daughter. “She has been having strange symptoms for the past few weeks and I’m worried about her,” she said.

The doctor examined the daughter carefully then announced, “Madam, I believe your daughter is pregnant.”

The mother was flabbergasted. “That’s nonsense! I know my daughter, she has nothing whatsoever to do with men.” She turned to the daughter and asked, “you don’t do you dear?”

“No mum,” she said, “you know that I would never so much as kiss a man!”

The doctor looked at the mother, then at the daughter and back again. He then silently stood up and stood next to a window staring out. He continued staring until the silence compelled the mother to ask, “Doctor, is there something out there?”

“No, madam” he said. “It’s just that the last time something like this happened a star appeared in the East. I was looking to see if another one was going to show up.”

Why I want to be a Doctor

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The moment right after passing my high school entry examinations remains nostalgic. If I’d travel back in time and passed my exams well enough to get the media scurrying home, I’d wait for that ‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’ question and promptly answer, ‘Adult’. Yes I said it, -Adult. Here is why…

My take is that people have rather deluded ideas of what being a doctor is. The society and even some doctors think that being in the medical field is a calling. I used to think the same till I asked myself; ‘who really called me?’ If it even was a message -let alone a calling, me thinks it was hand written, in hieroglyphics; slit into a split stick and sent to me via the fastest runner within a hundred mile radius. Seldom, I think he only got to deliver that message because I wasn’t running fast enough in the opposite direction. That happens when I am on a low run of course.

The process starts with being a medical student. This is where you are confined to Med School Maximum Security Prison. They pressurize you with all the medical jargon here. The more you learn, the more you realize how much more you do not know and the more you forget. You even forget yourself. In fact, your social circle is relegated to your loved ones, a few like-minded friends with whom you share ‘sick’ jokes, and many more sick ‘friends.’ You appreciate what it really means to be sick get well and accept that people die. Your responsibility- to be seen and not heard… and when it’s required that you be heard, it should mostly be the sound of your tongue diligently licking your consultants boots and making sense while you are at it. Once your saliva is exhausted and your seniors can see a vague reflection of your face on their shoes, they may let you graduate.

Being a doctor is enjoyable. We derive satisfaction from fixing people. It is that rush of solving the mysteries of body versus disease that pushes us forward. The times we are able to cheat death and bargain with life for a little more time on behalf of our patients. Those amazing moments we venture even deeper to do ‘repair’ and ‘replacement’ as in surgery. Believe me, it takes people with more guts than a kid with mega colon. We feel like demi-gods while we are at it. Not many have the privilege to do that after all, let alone the balls. That is what our profession is about. Restoring life, health and purpose where it was dwindling. But then again, it is never that simple.

The world embraces you in its stony arms. Society thinks you are a miracle worker on a path to riches. You have a sworn duty to your patients, and you must keep abreast with new information to stay sharp. You lose sight of what is important. It all is anyway. They miss you at home, you are never there. You console yourself that you are going out life and limb for others, for humanity. Even the closest to you never seem to understand you. You got used to this in med school. Since then, there was never enough of you to go around. This either distracts you, or you resign to forgetting yourself all the more.

 At the hospital, you have many lives to save. Depending on how good you are, you save most and lose a few. Sometimes it is your fault, other times it is beyond you. It’s unfortunate that you can’t save them all. It hurts deep, this realization. You could sit down and wallow in glum; they call it being human. I’ve learnt to square my jaw and forge ahead like it never happened; I call it protecting my heart. Despite all that’s on your shoulders, you tell yourself that you have to do better next time. You don’t have a choice, you simply have to.    

‘Why did I want to be a doctor?’ I ask again. Too many times I have answered this question a little too hastily. I made a choice… No, I love it all. But once in a while, I am not so sure. I could do business, disaster management, or try physical education. Simple things to do, albeit you make way more than your input accounts for. Maybe I should find a better answer to this question. Until then, let’s have a moment of silence, I need to introspect: play me some good music, to whose lyrics I can relate: as I flip through a book, coarse enough to sharpen my intellect: just understand me for being me, that, I’ll truly appreciate.