Saturday morning, 3.30am, overnight shift in ED. I had just gone into the on-call room for a shut-eye when one of the interns popped in to let me know that the ambos were bringing in a middle-aged male in cardiac arrest. There was six of us in ED: an ED physician, 2 interns, 2 nurses and myself. Did I want to see it? "Hell yeah!" I thought, this is the only medicine worth seeing as far as some med students are concerned. Things are somewhat different on the other side now, you'll see what I mean.
He looked his age, but a little worse for wear. He'd been intubated by the ambos; and had defib pads on his bare chest. I stood back to watch as the scene unfolded, wanting and unwanting to be involved... it's a hard feeling to describe. A few minutes in, one of the interns told me to grab a pair of gloves and get ready to take over chest compressions. "Wha..? Err, okay.." I took over after from the start of a new cycle - and in that instant, I crossed the line; I became involved, in more ways than I wished to be, as events would later unfold. I'd done CPR before - on a 90 something year old already half-dead, dying old man in Fiji, just because protocol dictated we do so. At the time, I appreciated the practice, felt kind of sorry that I broke his rib cage, and was secretly grateful when they called it. This was so different, so much more intense, so much more involved... I'll keep coming back to that word. It was an intensely highly-sensory experience: I could smell the patient's sweat; hear the ventilator beep, puff and whirrr; feel the crunch beneath my hands as we'd surely broken his ribs; and see his empty eyes staring up at me. If anything, the eyes gave it away - he wasn't going to make it, even I knew that. In hindsight, I wish I didn't have that initial hunch that he'd already left us - I wonder if I would've compressed harder and more wilfully on his chest if it weren't the case? I wonder if that would have made a difference? Several rounds of compressions, a bolus of atropine or adrenaline, stop and re-assess, rotate through and do it all again... we gave him a fair go. Initially because it seemed he was gasping for air though the ETT, and then when that had stopped, for closure. And then we called it, just like that. Machines turned off, ventilator detached. Time of death: 04:05.
We stood back for a few moments to quietly reflect on what had happened and pray to whatever we believed in that he was is a better place now. Then one of the nurses looked up at me and said, "he's from a Middle-Eastern Muslim background, I think the family would really appreciate if you're there when Noel (the ED physician) tells them." It wasn't a suggestion, they all nodded in agreement and it was decided. Nothing in the world can prepare you for delivering the information we were about to. Nothing at all. We lead them into the family room - his wife, kids, brother and sister in law. Typical Arab-style, the extended family were all in the waiting room. Noel started to ask a few questions about how our patient came to be: straight-out-of-a-text-book heart attack presentation - so classical, it was heartbreaking. His wife recognised he was having a heart attack and urged him to go to the hospital. Shit! If only... ? Or maybe it wouldn't have made a difference... ? Who knows... ? Noel asked a few more questions, before finally putting it out there that, "we tried very hard..". The message passed over them. Noel looked at me and I said in a faint voice in Arabic, "God has taken his soul, may He have mercy on it".
The rest is of inconsequence. Life happens when you least expect it and people react in ways that they know how best to. The outcome is the same, no matter who delivered it, but I hope that being there in this sensitive moment made the situation a little bit easier for them. For me, suddenly, everything else in the ED that night seemed so trivial...
To be honest, I hated being the bearer of bad news to this family - worst feeling as far as the future doctor in me was concerned; more so than losing the patient I think. This family could have been mine, easily; the situation was so eerily close to home after what had happened with my mum last year. I was involved in a way I haven't been in a very long time, or ever even, with a patient and their family. But there's a lesson to be learnt in everything we do here. In the past few months before this happened, I'd noticed myself becoming increasingly blase about the people around me as patients and my role as a carer. A lot of the time I haven't even bothered asking the patient's name and I guess I've pushed this concern to the side thinking, "detachment in medicine can only be good", or they say so anyway. And then this. I won't deny that I've felt quite sad for the last few days, but now that the dust is starting to settle, I feel refreshingly at peace with the idea that I've at least felt something towards someone who I was looking after. It's paradoxical, I know. Guess I just didn't realise how much I missed it...
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