What We Get Wrong About Dying

My first exposure to the death of a patient came during my third year of medical school, in Israel. It was my first clinical rotation, which happened to be in internal medicine. Tagging along with my mentor, a senior physician to whom I had been assigned, on his morning rounds, we entered the room of an elderly woman who was critically ill with an antibiotic-resistant bacteria in her urinary system. The infection had spread throughout her frail body and was now wreaking havoc on most of her vital organs. Observing her for a few moments as she lay there unconscious, he said, “She’s almost at the end.”

I scrutinized the woman’s face, her breathing, the digital readouts of the instruments, trying to understand what signs he was so brilliantly interpreting. To me it seemed like voodoo, as though through some dark art he was able to peer into her very soul.

kali9 / Getty Images

Assuming that with nothing more to do here we would move on, I began to back away toward the door. But he surprised me by pulling a chair up to the bedside, sitting down, and taking one of the woman’s limp hands in his own. I realize now that in addition to providing her with the comfort of a human touch, he was also probably assessing her pulse, feeling her skin growing cooler, judging the blood flow to her extremities. But at the time I saw it simply as a kind human gesture, all the more startling because, though so simple, it struck me as a profound part of what it means to be a healer. Even though I was only a medical student, I was already so lost in my books, so focused on physiology and on memorizing for tests, that I had forgotten for a moment what I was really training for.

“She has no family here,” he said. “Never forget, if you accompany your patients only until the battle is lost and they are dying, if you abandon them at that point and leave them

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus6 min read
The Big Bang Is Hard Science. It Is Also a Creation Story.: Even with its explanatory power, Big Bang theory takes its place in a long line of myths.
In some ways, the history of science is the history of a philosophical resistance to mythical explanations of reality. In the ancient world, when we asked “Where did the world come from?” we were told creation myths. In the modern world, we are inste
Nautilus9 min readScience
To Fix the Climate, Tell Better Stories: The missing climate change narrative.
Here are two sets of statements from far-distant opposites in the climate change debate. The first is from Naomi Klein, who in her book This Changes Everything paints a bleak picture of a global socioeconomic system gone wrong: “There is a direct and
Nautilus9 min readPsychology
Our Brains Tell Stories So We Can Live: Without inner narratives we would be lost in a chaotic world.
We are all storytellers; we make sense out of the world by telling stories. And science is a great source of stories. Not so, you might argue. Science is an objective collection and interpretation of data. I completely agree. At the level of the stud