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She was young, a teenager. She had been a student on holiday; had collapsed suddenly. A subarachnoid haemorrhage was diagnosed. By the time she arrived at the hospital, there was little that could be done. Her parents had been called from abroad.
As I stood by her bed, I remember mostly the shock. She looked so alive. For the first time, I understood why people could cling on to hope, why they could refuse to turn off the machine. It seemed impossible to think that she was dead. She was lying as though in a deep sleep; her skin pink, her face unmarked. She would wake up at any moment, would look around in surprise at finding herself in an intensive care unit, surrounded by people who looked truly sick, truly on the verge of death. And yet.....she, out of them all, was the one most completely beyond hope.
The doctors examined her thouroughly, confirmed her to be brain-dead. Her eyes were bright as they were opened gently by the doctors, her hands were warm. The examination would have to be repeated later on, to ensure that there had been no mistake. In the meantime, the parents arrived.
I have seen grief, but never like this. It felt sacrilegious to be in its presence. I wanted to cry too, but of course I couldn’t. Still, I left that experience in shock. Shock that death could be so sudden, so young....and look so much like Life.
One of the first questions the parents asked, as they clung on to each other in tears, was whether her organs were fit for donation. I only mention it, because I think of that moment as one of the most wonderful ones I have ever witnessed in a hospital. The selflessness in that question, even though they had just travelled for hours to meet a daughter who would never talk again, touched me.
I thought of that patient and her parents for a long time. I remembered when I was very young, and I thought death was something that came peacefully, after a long and healthy life, to old people who were ready to die. I did not realise that people were not always prepared for death, were not resigned to it. I did not realise that the young died as well.
Maybe the day I realised that was the day when I knew that I would be a doctor. To control not death, but its timing. To not be afraid of that last rest, but to fight the pain, the suffering, and the fear that precedes it. But that day too is yet another story, maybe for another time.
Of course, I’ve had experiences with death even before entering medicine. My first one came when I was three. On some afternoons, I would accompany my grandmother on visits to her brother. I don’t know why, but I enjoyed it. He would sit me down on the bed beside him, and tell me things. I do not remember the things he said, only the narrow, dim room where the bed lay, the brightness of the kitchen where my grandma would prepare his dinner, and his white, nicotine-stained whiskers moving as he talked. One day, the visits stopped. I don’t think I noticed much. Later, I realized that ‘uncle Frenc’ was dead.
The second, more painful one, came when I was ten and my grandfather died suddenly of a myocardial infarct. It was New Year’s; the start of the millenium, to be exact. The clock had just struck midnight. Maybe the world did not end that day, like many people thought it would. But for me, something did end. Call it naiveté, call it trust that life would always be kind, always be fair.
I think that moment comes to each and every one of us. And while we all entered medicine for many different reasons, I don’t think many of us would still be here, if that moment had not occured in our lives, and had not given us something to fight against. In a way, we have already faced Death. It struck us with a kid glove, inviting us to duel with him. When we meet again, it will be with drawn swords, ready for the fight. May the best one win.