Life and Death


Robert Bruce, Medical Student

Life has been ROARING along since my last blog. Hard to believe I have only been here for 3 full weeks- feels like a year (that’s in a good way, mind you..). Dave and I have been averaging about 80 hours per week. That sounds like a lot, and we do get tired, but it’s funny how quickly our eyelids snap open when a new patient walks in the door. I’d need a short novel to tell you about everything I have seen and done. Instead, I’d like to share a few experiences that have been real eye openers.

For starters, I DELIVERED MY FIRST BABY LAST WEEKEND! Just to clarify, it wasn’t MY baby- it was a patient’s baby (I made a similar announcement on my Facebook page and had a lot of hearty congratulations from old friends who also wanted to know when I decided to get married and start having kids). While I have already observed numerous C sections and vaginal births with OB/GYNs at Women’s Health Associates, this was just the first time I was “in the driver’s seat” when a new life came into the world. It was both an exhilarating and a very humbling experience. The labor was progressing well and we knew the mom was only a few pushes away when the Doctor stepped back and motioned for me to take over. I wish I could tell you in a calm and confident tone how I monitored the progression of the labor while keeping a sharp and knowing eye on the fetal heart rate and tocometer tracings…. in reality, the sole thought running through my head was, “Just don’t drop the baby!” What can I say? It was my first delivery, I was terrified, and newborns are kinda slippery.

Happily, I did not drop the baby. The birth went off without a hitch (under the watchful eye of the doctor!) and mom and her new peanut have since left St. Mary’s happy and healthy. Baby delivery #1 will remain a happy highlight for the rest of my life.

There have been some less-than-happy but equally powerful moments in the past few weeks. Dealing with death and loss is certainly one of the more difficult experiences I will face in this profession. I was working the redeye shift in the ER with the hospitalist when a patient was admitted. It was clear from the exam and imaging that the prognosis was poor. For the first time, I found myself on-hand while a physician had ‘the talk’ with grieving family members clustered by the bedside. In such an emotionally-charged setting, the hospitalist delivered the news in a manner that was professional and honest while at the same time deeply respectful and supportive. When he spoke to the family he was as much a caring human being as he was the doctor. The family was deeply touched and, despite their grief, you could see their appreciation. I was deeply touched as well. I only hope that I can grow to equal that task and, when my time comes to deliver bad news, that I will do so with every bit of compassion that I witnessed in the ER that evening.

The last experience I want to share was when a patient asked me for a miracle.

As a newly-minted, third-year medical student, I make a point of asking patients to not call me “doctor.” I am a medical student, not a doctor, and won’t be until I complete many more years of training. Though lacking in the technical know-how, one area where I can contribute as a student is by taking the time to get to know the patient and listen to their worries and concerns. Busy physicians don’t always have the time to just sit and chat with their patients, and it is always amazing how many patients just want someone to sit and listen.

I met one such patient who arrived in the ER with her daughter. I helped by obtaining a thorough history and performing the physical exam. Afterward, the doctor left to order labs and imaging while I sat with the two in the exam room and just listened to them. Later, when the mother was admitted as an inpatient, I rounded on her daily in my free time and came to know her and her daughter better.

A short time later, the mother was brought to another department for an invasive procedure that, while necessary, was not without risk. The attending physician clearly explained all of this to the patient and her daughter and addressed their concerns and questions. To my great surprise, the patient’s daughter turned to me and said, “Doc, you gotta do me a favor. Pull out a miracle for my Mom on this one.” Before I could say a word in protest, she walked out.

I wasn’t performing the procedure and I’d been very clear that I’m still just a student, but she turned to me anyway. On the one hand, it is terrifying that someone would place so much hope and trust in a doctor that they would ask for a miracle. On the other hand, it is humbling to see the personal connection and impact that can formed with complete strangers, just by listening to them in a time when they are frightened and in pain.

Right now, I’m still just a student who often knows only a bit more about what’s going on than the patient. The two years of classes in Boston and the next 9 months at St. Mary’s will bring me closer to the day when I’m the one wearing the white coat and performing the procedure. That patient’s request made me realize what people often ask from their care providers- miracles. I only hope, in the next few years, to learn as much good medicine as I can so that I’ll be the best doctor I can be for my patients. That said, if during that process I stumble across the occasional miracle, I won’t turn it down.

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3 Responses to “Life and Death”

  1. MJ Van Tassell says:

    well written…..Having watched as many a Medical Student pushed their way through the long hard training, I can understand what you feel, and have great respect for anyone, in any profession that goes through a grueling program. Best of luck to you!

  2. audrey says:

    stumbled onto this by accident….enjoyed reading it! A great Dr in the making here : )
    Congratulations on baby delivery

  3. Connie says:

    Wow, your story is well written, I am touched by the fact that you consider yourself a Medical Student and not a doctor. I will pray that you continue your studies well and that you succeed in life, being an MD is not an easy task. May God Bless you!!

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