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07 Nov 2018

Nurse Kelly nonchalantly handed me the stack of paperwork I needed to complete. Words like ‘coroner’ and ‘cause of death’ jumped out at me as if to mock, making my stomach churn.  “You can go home.  The morning team will tell her husband” she said, turning as she donned her latex gloves. Thoughts raced through my head faster than the wave of nausea welling in my stomach.

As I finished the last of the paperwork, I realised what it would be like for Alex, Laila’s husband of many decades to find out that she had died during the night. Alone. I decided that, uncomfortable as it may be, that I wanted the responsibility to tell him.  I was probably the last one to see her. Would he break down?  Would he scream? Would he faint or maybe have a MI?

“I’m sorry Alex, but Laila passed away last night.  I want to let you know that she was very happy when I last saw her, and that she must have passed in her sleep.”  Alex was stunned for a few seconds, but a veil of sadness then covered his face - one that I would never forget.  I comforted him for a while, and he thanked me for letting him know and for the time I spent with him. As he slowly disappeared into the sunlight, head down, I felt a small ray of fulfilment amongst all the emotions and fatigue.  I think it was the first day I felt like an actual doctor.

Coming face to face with death is always met with fear, anxiety, and even dread initially. But it can lead to a mechanical casualness as we become more ‘experienced’.  We are trained to recognize illness, to follow protocols, to refer to seniors and to  administer medications. We are trained to ‘save lives’.  But what does that really mean? And why does our training usually stop there? Do we become better at dealing with death, or just at dissociating with it? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I think about them a great deal.  In my few years now as a doctor, I’ve realized that my job now isn’t just to heal. It’s to know when it’s time to let go. I’ve learned that dignity in death is a high honour that everyone deserves. Handling dying, and death is an important part of a doctor’s job, and I endevour to take it seriously, as it we will all inevitably face all sides of this experience.

Faizal was born in Canada and loves the outdoors, travelling and skiing, narrowly avoiding death by hypothermia on a frozen lake. After completing his studies at ANU followed by internship at ACT Health, he now works as a GP in Geelong, Victoria.

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Published: 07 Nov 2018