smell of death

tonight, i watched an 11-year-old girl die.

the noise and movement of the resuscitation efforts ceased after about an hour and all eyes turned towards the cardiac monitor. only the sound of slow electrical activity pierced through the air, accenting the anticipation of the inevitable.

eventually the bleeps coalesced into a single tone, signifying a single line. a flat-line. the staff unhooked all the monitors and disconnected the oxygen supply.


then, chaos. the anguished cries of people who have loved the little girl for the 11 years of her short, short life burst through the red room in a tragic explosion. they wept and screamed and flung themselves on the floor. the men tried to stay strong for the women, but the unmistakable sobbing of her father was heard in a corridor a short distance from the room.

i tried to distract myself from all that emotion by reading the child’s case notes, hoping to satisfy my curiosity as to what could have possibly caused her death. still, a thousand medical and non-medical thoughts ran through my head as i tried to make sense of what just happened.

during the resuscitation, i helped out with chest compressions. it is hard to avoid looking at a patient’s face when you perform cpr. the girl’s face was devoid of life by the time i stood over her body, pressing my weight against her chest. there was a distinct smell of acid and vomitus that wafted through the mask i had over my face.

she was dead. i knew it. my friends knew it. every single person behind those green curtains knew it. and her family knew it, long before one of the doctors stepped outside to break the news to them.

i’ve seen a fair share of deaths even as a medical student – someone died on my very first day in the medical ward – but it gets to me each and every single time. the family’s response is almost never as dramatic as the one i bore witness to tonight, but every death – whether of a long-standing illness or something as sudden as a heart attack – has an element of surprise to it. you just don’t expect people to die. you just don’t.

i’ll go to sleep with the smell of that little girl’s death on my skin and the unanswered questions of her family on my mind. i wish with all my heart that she didn’t die. i wish i wasn’t there to see her go.


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