When I Was a Pre-Med

My professor told us his daughter was dying.

Though he said it matter-of-factly, his tone and body language told us everything. His voice was softer and lower than usual, his eyes were downcast, his fingers frozen on his phone, his shoulders hunched. He remained in that position, still, as the silence following his words washed over the classroom.

My professor told us his daughter will die and no one knows why.

Immediately I felt an overwhelming sense of emotions, the first being guilt. I felt guilt because in a room of about twenty students, I was the one pursuing medicine. I was the one who had to understand that death is inevitable, that medicine has its limitations, that doctors are not the cure all and they sure do not know all. I felt guilt because despite that understanding I was hearing this news from the parent of a patient who wanted and needed answers. I cannot tell him death is inevitable, that medicine has its limitations, and that doctors are not the know all, cure all answers. When so much faith is placed on medicine to deliver answers and delay death, how could I?

No one knows why.

How could I explain why we do not know why? How could I explain that throughout the whole span of human history the most significant medical advance happened 88 years ago? How could I explain that the first organ transplant was 62 years ago? How could I explain that the war on cancer was announced 45 years ago? How could I explain that we think we are in a golden age of medicine with our wars against diseases, yet we have not even taken one step towards what lies at the horizon, nonetheless beyond it. The life-changing medical advances we know have yet to celebrate their centennial. We are constantly doing research, and we are making progress, but there is still more to gain, and for those who fall between the crack we are trying to learn why.

How can medicine explain to a parent of a child with an unknown disease that we simply do not know and we cannot help? We are not, and never will be, masters. We are simply apprentices. But how can we explain to the suffering that we are simply humans when they come to us seeking divinity?

I felt guilt because medical professionals are expected to carry humanity in their hands and perform miracles with the snap of a finger but cannot always come through. I felt guilt because my professor wanted answers but no one could give it to him. I felt guilt because ten years from now, when I am working in a hospital, I am going to have to tell a patient that it is their time, or a loved one’s time, to confront death and I do not know why. I will tell them I tried the best I could, that I did everything I was taught, and I will apologize that it wasn’t enough. I will hold their hand, I will give them a hug, I will perhaps shed a tear, but I won’t be able to feel their immense loss, their hope, their reliance, their disappointment.

Death will always be our limitation and no matter how hard we try it is something we cannot grasp. It will always beyond our reach, in territories that will forever be uncharted. Yet medicine is evolving in a manner that views death as a failure and actively seeks to avoid it.

That is what I felt. I felt failure.

I felt guilt because I felt failure and I felt failure because I felt responsible. I know it sounds ridiculous but I felt it. Now that I am in medical school, now that I have taken ethics, now that I have thought and discussed death, now that I am wiser for it, I still can’t shake that feeling off.

So where have I failed?

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