Assisting at Anointing

(originally published 26 Nov 2009)

I just assisted at anointing one of my patients, who presented at the emergency department with a very poor prognosis. Unresponsive to all of the stimuli I tried to rouse her from sleep, and her pupils not responsive to light, she looked as if death were waiting around the corner.

Since I started rotating in the hospital as a clinical clerk, in other words a junior doctor, the phenomenon of death has never failed to perplex me. It seems so fast as it comes, snatching life out of those whom it calls to. I once had another patient who, after being suctioned of his phlegm through his breathing tube, suddenly became agitated and died. Death is as scary as it is abrupt, all that has been with the person is now over. The heart stops, the eyes cease to respond to light, the breathing stops, and the blood pressure goes down to 0/0.

It is not a comfortable feeling to have one of your own patients die.

I have often been exposed to death as though it were something to be expected, something after which, life could go on for the rest of us in the hospital. Back to work. No debriefings. No processing sessions. Just getting back to work. One still has other patients to work on. One still needs to study. One still needs to go on, move on.

I have not gotten used to it though. There is still a part of me that wants to grieve.

My friend, a religious novice, once asked me how we medical professionals manage to cope with witnessing death. I told him there is no single way.

I imagine myself suffering with the family, and the dying patient as my own flesh and blood. This brings tears to my eyes, in part, because this person has been loved and cared for by his family and loved ones.

I cry. I slowly realize that all that this world has to offer has its end. And I slowly get reminded to work for riches that will at least earn me a place in heaven. Or, to put it more altruistically, to work so that I can help other people earn their respective places in heaven too.

Witnessing death may have caused me sadness. But if I were to look at death as a path towards life eternal, I ought to feel that death is also an opportunity for those living to realize how we should make the best out of the life that has been given us.

Assisting at this morning’s anointing just made me realize this: God is still calling me to do greater things than this.