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Medical Humanities


Neha Verma

July 28, 2017

I’ve got a stethoscope in my hands, my white coat around my shoulders, and the sound of a dying man’s lungs in my ears. It is the first day of my third year of medical school, the year that medical students eagerly transition from classroom to clinic, finally trading in textbooks and PowerPoint slides for real patients. I move my stethoscope from left to right on the man’s chest, listening to the ventilator rhythmically inflate and deflate his lungs -- in, out, in, out, in, out. Something about the artificial steadiness of the sound makes my hands shake. I continue to hear it even after I have returned the stethoscope to the pocket of my white coat, even after I have left the ICU.

Christmas. Four years ago. My older sister was in the middle of her third year of medical school, and I was in my junior year of college. Our family wanted to go see a movie together, and as we were trying to decide which one, Mom said: “Oh, I know, how about Gravity, that new one with Sandra Bullock?”

“I’ve been wanting to see that one too!” I said. Dad nodded enthusiastically beside me.

My sister paused, fidgeting with a piece of wrapping paper, then mumbled, “Actually, I’d rather not see that one.”

“Why not?” Mom replied. “It got great reviews.”

“And it looks like you might be outnumbered anyway,” Dad added with a playful smile. “Should we put it to a vote?”

At this, my sister stood up, her face angry. “Look, I already have to see people dying all the time and I’d rather not spend two hours of my vacation watching people contemplating death in outer space. You all can go if you want, but I’m not coming. That’s it.”

It is the second day of my third year of medical school. I am back in the ICU, performing chest compressions on a man with no pulse. My face is hot and I am wondering how an organ strong enough to pump two thousand gallons of blood every day can also suddenly stop working in an otherwise healthy man just over the age of forty-two. My hands are clammy and the moisture on my palms mixes with the beads of sweat on his chest. If this were a TV show, his pulse would come back. This is not a TV show. His pulse does not come back. When his wife arrives with tears in her eyes, my eyes fill with tears too. I wonder how many more times I will have to witness this same scene before I can do it without crying. I wonder how many more times I will have to witness this same scene at all.

We ended up choosing a different movie that Christmas, but we always gave my sister such a hard time for it, crowning her the Christmas Movie Drama Queen. When Gravity was nominated for Best Motion Picture, we teased her, saying that if only she had been in a better mood that Christmas morning, we wouldn’t have all missed out on such a critically acclaimed film.

Last night I had a cup of chamomile tea in my hands and my coziest blanket around my shoulders, but the sound of a dying man’s lungs was still in my ears. It was the third day of my third year of medical school. I called my sister and told her that finally, I understood what she had meant about Gravity, and that I was sorry, really, I was so, sorry, about, it all, and as I choked on the words and the phone in my hand began to shake I willed myself to breathe -- in, out, in, out, in, out. 

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