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Editor’s Comments on “Dying for the First Time”

 , September 21, 2013

Dying for the First Time” by Jesse Kane marks the third and final piece in our series exploring the role of suffering and illness in medical education. In this article, Kane guides the reader through the tumultuous experience of watching someone die, quickly yet slowly. The details are piercing: the CPR machine cracking the man’s ribs, the tanned arms carrying the only life in his naked torso, the wristwatch that seems oddly out of place. Anyone who has been through medical school can easily remember the first code they participated in, or more accurately, the first code they shrunk away from. Like Kane, we all stared in the awe of “confused excitement”, wanting to learn, wanting to feel, and at the same time wanting to run away. Then comes objectification with science, discussing the pacemaker details with a classmate, trying to remember the criteria for death from the textbook. But in the end, reality sets in. 

Dying patients are the greatest teachers of the limitations of medicine. In Kane’s story, modern medicine could not save the patient, nor could it even stop the pacemaker to allow him to die. The author waited for that magical moment when life slipped into death, but there was none. “There was no sound... I don’t even know when his heart stopped.” The transition complete, he was left with shaking hands and a lasting memory. Experiences like these become part of us as physicians, affect who we become as people and how we practice medicine. In the words of the author, “It is only with these experiences, these intimate moments, that we can learn the true value of medicine, beyond the science... May I forever be grateful to this man for his lessons, and may God bless him.”

Bryan Sisk, MD
Deputy Editor, The Living Hand