No. 17A” in-Training, the peer-reviewed online publication for medical students
I sat tucked into the corner of the hospital room and looked up from my screen. I could see his veins swell. They were still prominent, but the saline infusion made them look ready to burst. Tubes and wires emerged from her, seemingly born out of nothing. She wore a blue blouse and several white blankets covered her. Nothing she wore belonged to her. Should I run home and grab one of his blankets? I looked down.
My attention returned to my screen and I read the vignette: “A 28 year old died during a basketball game following a sudden cardiac arrest. The pathology report would mainly show what types of cells four days after death? A picture was attached and the hematoxylin and eosin stain made it explode with all shades of red and purple.
We think the human body has organization, but this slide revealed the microscopic truth. Cells of all different shapes and sizes were mixed together, forming scarlet rivers and purple lakes with no purpose, at least to my untrained eye. The painting may as well have been painted by Pollock. I didn’t know the answer, so I took my best guess and clicked forward. An all-too-familiar big red “X” appeared. I sighed deeply – another question I should revisit.
My attention swung between my mother, my screen, and the pairs of eyes that periodically looked around the hospital room. The privacy blinds were up, but the exterior facing wall was all glass and the blind didn’t fully cover the corners. It was as if we were fish observed in an aquarium. The eyes belonged to the hospital staff checking in on us, but being able to see their partial gaze made it feel like we were being spied on. Despite the discomfort this caused me, I appreciated their concern. They just wanted to take care of mom. I looked at her briefly. How unfair – his face was sunken with exhaustion and prolonged illness. How unfair. I looked down.
I focused on the next question on my screen. Another patient expired as if from a carton of milk that had been left in the refrigerator too long. The nonchalant way the questions presented death, sickness, and disease underscored the absurdity of my situation. I was hunched over my computer, reading fake patient stories as my mother was possibly dying right in front of me. If she was, I would spend some of my last moments with her trying to remember what type of cells would be present in a fake expired patient. How could that matter? Would I even use this knowledge as a doctor? Yet the biggest test I would pass as a medical student was only three weeks away and it would determine my entire future career.
More eyes peeked out and I wondered if something was wrong. Maybe they were thinking about what I was doing? How could this patient’s son be so focused on his computer when his mother was sick right in front of him? I met a pair of eyes for a moment and silently pleaded my case, hoping that the anxiety and guilt bubbling within me would somehow reach them and make them understand. I will be a doctor one day. I have to do well to get there. I have to pass. For now, however, I was looking out the window instead of inside. I looked at mom. She was breathing softly, her lips barely swelling from her breath. She was sleeping peacefully. I looked down.
Image credit: Pollock (CC BY 2.0) by Antonio Campoy Ederra