Doctors are human, too

Saturday, February 19, 2011

As he watches a man slip away, a soon-to-be-doctor contemplates life, death and everything else in-between.

DEAFENING silence. Of all the oxymora in the English language, I like this best. It is spot-on, terse, succinct. For it not only captures the gravity of a situation, but also the human response to it. It encapsulates what it means to be human.

Deafening silence. It illustrates that, in the moments of our greatest ecstasy, our greatest anxiety, our greatest anguish, we unwittingly choose to remain mute. We choose to hold our tongue. We choose to become humans.

So I stood there that night, witnessing the final moments of a man’s life, surrounded by family members he no longer recognised. Then the frantic attempts at resuscitation and the deafening silence that ensued. Then came the sobbing, and the melodious recitation of the Ya-siin from the Quran.

After five years of being a medical student, one would have thought that seeing disease on a daily basis would numb you to the experience of death. That, somehow, you would not be personally and emotionally affected by what you witness.

Plenty of good advice, I have received. From specialists and consultants alike, each with decades of experience.

“You have to show sympathy. But you cannot be personally affected. You simply cannot afford to.”

And when you finally graduate and gain the title of “Dr” in front of your name, you’re expected to conduct yourself professionally – sympathising, but not empathising unnecessarily.

But we cannot escape the fact that doctors, too, are human. They are, often, fallible. They become slaves to their minds and sentiments. They feel. They emote.

Most people view hospitals as a house for the sick. But I personally believe it is more than that. It is, foremost, the repository of human tragedies. The museum that showcases our imperfections as human beings. The mirror that reflects our inadequacies as a species.

There was the elderly bedridden man with no family to keep him company. A newborn abandoned by her teenage mother who feared social stigma. Women with polycystic ovaries who’d been left by their husbands.

A man who died because he could not afford the RM20 taxi fare to come to the hospital promptly when he was stricken with illness. A former ustazah who, sadly, is now a schizophrenic. Human tragedies aplenty ...

Yet hospitals can also be a refuge of hope. A refreshing reminder that, in many instances, faith still shines through.

There are plenty of scenarios that attest to this.

The stoic, unsentimental man shedding tears for the first time in his adult life at the sight of his firstborn. A girl who’d had an asthmatic attack, and the worried look on her mother’s face, as though the world was about to end. The lady who chose to stick by her HIV-positive husband through thick and thin.

Yet, although hope persists, tragedy still exists in our midst. And nowhere is it more visible than in hospitals. And often, these tragedies result not from circumstances, but from our maladaptive reactions to them.

As the body’s physical defence withers, so does the mind’s. We shed civility. We forget that we’re humans. We display our raw, animalistic psychic apparatus that Freud calls our id.

I have always been amused by how we greet life and death in diametrically contrasting ways. At birth, at the dawn of our lives, we came crying, yet our family greeted us with absolute joy and happiness. And at death, at life’s twilight, it is our family’s turn to cry, and we depart (hopefully) with contentment and happiness.

Remember the man I told you about earlier? Whose death I witnessed? I can no longer recall his name. Forgive me, but I’m human. I forget.

I nonetheless challenge you to spend a day – or even half a day – at the emergency department of a hospital. Bring nothing but your eyes and ears. You will see people come and go, for a multitude of reasons. Smiles on their faces, or tears in their eyes. Laughter and joy, or cries of despair.

This is what I wish to share. That in hospitals, you do not merely see diseases. You see people. People reacting with their basest instincts, plain and simple.

Three months shy of my final exams, I was confronted with this question posed by a consultant the other day: “Are you guys ready to become doctors?”

A tricky question. I hope I am equipped with enough knowledge to practise. The MBBS programme (and the multitude of exams) saw to that. But I learnt something else along the way.

I learnt that life and death, in most instances, are not merely events – they are perspectives. That burial traditions are held to appease – not God – but mainly our hearts. That when someone dies, we cry not for the dearly departed, but for ourselves, the ones left behind.

But above all, I learnt that – regardless of who we are, regardless of our wealth, intellect and social standing – we remain unmistakably human. I learnt that humans grieve. That we bereave.

And in these moments of my contemplation, I chose to become human. I stood silent. In deafening silence.


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