…and a time to die.

Recently I was on night shift, eating KFC at 3am in the common room with the other interns and joking about things that shouldn’t be joked about around food, and my pager went off.  I could dedicate a whole post to my pager and one day will, but it will mostly about wanting to throw the thing at the wall.  But this time it was different.

I rang the number, and the nurse of a certain ward answered, and let me know an elderly patient had died, and the family would like me to come up and confirm it.  A lot of the time you’ll go up and confirm it without the family present but this particularly patient’s relatives wanted to be there.  I hung up and started making my way up through the labyrinth of corridors to the ward.

I’d never certified a death before.  When I put my chicken down and told the other interns, I was met with a sombre mood, and “your first?” followed by sympathetic pats and the promise of chocolate on my return.  As I walked through those silent corridors, my heart was pounding.  What would they look like?  How did they die?  What if I got it wrong?  What if I certified them and they weren’t really gone?  What if they had a pacemaker?  All sorts of ghoulish thoughts found their way into my mind and by the time I reached the nurses station, I was a quivering mess.

The nurse on was lovely, she asked me if I was okay, and I whispered that I hadn’t done it before.  “Want me to come with you?” was met by a frenzied nod on my behalf, and I took a deep breath, hung my steth around my neck, and walked into the room to met five grown men and women in tears.  In the bed was the dearest old lady with a pretty neckscarf on, her eyes closed, her face peaceful.

I looked in her eyes, listened to her chest.  She was quiet everywhere.  When I tried to take her pulse, my own heart was beating so hard that I could feel my own through my fingers and I took it for maybe a little too long.

Are you sure?” came a tiny voice, from a grown man, and I nodded.  I told them I was sorry for their loss, and that I thought she looked beautiful.

Outside the nurse squeezed my hand and I did the paperwork.  Then I went back downstairs where I was met with chocolate and similar stories.  One intern had dreamed about his patient for a week afterward.

I will forever be grateful to my patient.  The family told me she was a lovely and kind woman and I couldn’t help but think that in death she was the same.  My introduction was so gentle by comparison to others, and she (I will never forget her name), has my eternal gratitude.


  1. Aw.

    I recently had a close family friend pass away in hospital and it was a 1st year doctor who told me he would be dying in hospital and she also told me when he died a few days later.

    I remember thinking at the time that it must be hard for her to tell family members and I could feel her watching me as I was realising what was going on (when she told me there was no more they could do). She kept asking me if I was okay, and the truth was I just wanted her to leave so I could fall in heap, but seeing as I was alone at the time, I think she felt like she needed to stay… I could see tears welling up in her eyes too.

    It’s been my first experience of being given news of that nature and after reading your post, I am wondering if it was hers too.

    Thanks for shedding some light on the subject.

  2. There’s a sense of guilt attached I think, like you’ve just given someone this bad news and you feel like an awful person just walking away from them. Thankyou for your post, my natural instinct is also to stay (honestly sometimes you just want to give someone a big hug but it’s strangely unprofessional), and what you wrote highlighted the importance of what people need in this times. In my case I exited fairly quickly because there were 5 people in the room and they had each other – I don’t know how I’d go if it were just one. Since reading your reply I think I’d just gently let them know I was just outside if they needed anything. Thankyou again ❤

  3. That was beautifully written, thankyou for sharing
    My younger brother is in his first year of Medicine at USyd and I was thinking of him when I read this. I have the utmost respect for those in the medical profession
    I think it sounds like you did a great job of what must have been a very difficult task xx

  4. Such a beautiful post.

    Made me cry too. I hope when i die it will be as beautiful, with such an insightful and compassionate doctor.

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