Do you know that a suicide survivor is not a person who attempted suicide but did not die, but someone who survived the suicide of a near and dear one. Why do we call people who did not want to die, survivors? The reason is quite simple- they lived. They survived the major grief that is the death of a loved one.
As a Medical Health Professional, we have and will witness our fair share of deaths in and outside the hospital. People assume, imagine or perhaps expect us to be detached from this vital event. They think we are emotionally distant and well accustomed to being a bystander or a harbinger of death. I have watched people die in the middle of procedures, in the ICUs and in the wards. I have seen people die in the Emergency or brought dead. I have told parents of a 7 year old that their child had terminal Blood Cancer. I have held a mother close as she hugged me when the consultant told her that her 14 year old did not have more than a year to live. I have had a newborn die right before my eyes while the paediatrician tried everything to save the baby, while the mother was still on delivery table. And these are not all. Somehow, every patient I touch becomes my patient, even if I just measured their Blood Pressure manually. Someone told me that the feeling of empathy is what makes me a good doctor. Someone else told me it would eventually make me weaker.
As I face this conundrum of whether being able to connect with patients and their attendants on a not-so-superficial level makes me better or worse, something more important than this hits me hard. Family. How is someone supposed to break the bad news to the family? Or Close acquaintances? My neighbour’s mother was in the hospital a few months ago. Diabetic, with pleural effusion, difficulty breathing and her kidneys shutting down. As Aunty told me about how the doctors shoved an ET Tube down her mother’s throat to make her breathe better, she asked me if I’d looked at her reports. I had. What I like about phone calls is that you don’t have to face the person. For how do I tell this lady [who has considered me as a daughter for years now] that her mother may not be with her sooner than she thought. One thing I don’t like about phone calls is the silence gets even more awkward for you can’t touch the grieving person or place a consoling hand around their shoulders. I fumbled, I did say that her condition was critical and that I was sure the doctors were doing everything they possibly could. But I fumbled. Stuck between what I should’ve done as a doctor and providing support to her, I blurted out words of generic consolation and made an excuse to hang up. Aunty was on call with me for days, multiple times a day, sharing every report she could lay her hands on because her mother’s doctors didn’t quite explain things clearly. We talked everyday, until we didn’t. Her husband told my father one morning that her mother had passed away.
I was in the college one day, about four years ago. I was making notes when my phone started vibrating, it was my mother. I put it on silent. But she kept on calling. I received a text from her which said “call back ASAP”. I called her immediately after the class ended and she told me Tauji had passed away that morning. Tauji, my father’s cousin. An elder brother who was a father figure for him and was no more with us. I had a rather important test that day but then these things don’t matter when it is about your family. I ran back home as hurriedly as I had entered class that day.
I was studying in my room after dinner on January 01, 2017 when my father received a phone call. He walked out of the room silently to the balcony and was talking in hushed tones. Consider it a fault in my character that I am keen on overhearing conversations. Especially conversations that invoke a sense of curiosity in me. So did this. I gathered that someone had passed away but didn’t know who. Dad entered the room and told me my Mama Ji had passed away. Just as suddenly as Tauji did. My mother’s brother, the father of my closest cousins was no more. My mother too received a call but whoever called her was hysterical and she couldn’t catch a word. She came to my father anxiously. He didn’t tell her. He just took her there. I remained at home to take care of my brother and we went there the next morning. My mother had fainted last night and regained consciousness a few hours after we reached, somewhere close to noon and spent the next few days lying in bed.
My father had pain in his chest radiating to his left arm when I was in the Final Year of MBBS. My mother jolted me from sleep at around 0200 hours and told me this. I ran to their room, asked my father about the pain and its character and any other symptoms he had. It is tough to keep sane when you are in these situations. Are you supposed to be a primary care physician or a daughter? I was not even a doctor then so the choice was quite clear. I gathered all information I could. Going by the rather gory history of heart disease in my paternal family, I didn’t want to take any risk and I knew, I knew that it was not to be avoided. I woke up the neighbours since I didn’t know how to drive. Uncle and my mother took my father to the hospital and I was again to be at home taking care of my brother. I was in touch with her, on phone. She returned at 0700 hours in the morning, alone. They had admitted my father in Cardiac ICU. The details, my mother couldn’t understand and I don’t blame her. She bathed, I made breakfast and we went to the hospital around Noon when during visiting hours. My father was rather drowsy and I swear I could cry at that very moment. I looked at his file, the treatment was of suspected Angina, the ECG showed some changes and then the physician in the ICU snatched the file from my hands soon after that. She said attendants were not to touch the file. I told her I was a Medical Student and had a right to know what was going on but neither did she hand me the file, nor cared to explain. The consultant didn’t come for rounds till late evening and we were just sitting outside of the ICU waiting for some information. Being on the other side of the table does expose you to some realities of this ’noble’ profession that are better left unearthed. We had to take my father out of that hospital and he didn’t give us such a scare again but there’s a lingering fear in my mind. A fear I can explain but don’t want to address.
Doctors are not immune to the emotional devastation that death brings with it. We grieve a patient losing his life, and we are left as numb when one of our own leaves us.