“452 passed,” the ICU nurse told me.
I couldn’t remember who she was. I looked for her name on the list among the several dozens of patients I was cross-covering.
“452 passed,” the attending said to me 60 seconds later.
I didn’t need to be told a third time to understand the subtext. Hurry up and do your job.
I think it was pneumonia.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to the family upon entering. They watched as I performed the ritual with stethoscope and flashlight that had become second nature to me. No breath sounds, no heart sounds, no pupil response to light.
“Can we take away the machines?” they pleaded, looking at the silent ventilator.
Of course, said the nurse as I walked out of the room to write the death note. I heard her comforting the family.
Yes, it was pneumonia.
The medical student on our team, brimming with empathy, came up to me. “How is the family?” she asked.
I knew what she meant. What was second nature to me was foreign to her. Her question was broad because any kind of information was valuable to her.
New to the wards, she was hungry for interaction with patients. She wanted insight on what it felt like to be in that room. She wanted to be in that room.
But I hadn’t eaten in twenty hours.
And I felt like an interchangeable cog who confirmed what everyone already knew about someone I couldn’t even remember and filled out paperwork while the rest of the staff got to do the medicine and the nursing and the doctoring.
God, that question was dumb.
I calculated my response. “Sad.”
The team laughed as my senior grabbed my elbow and dragged me towards the cafeteria. “Come on, let’s eat.”
I’ll tell her tomorrow about the tenderness with which the granddaughter–about my own age–slowly kissed her grandmother on the forehead as she held back sobs.