I sat nestled in the corner of the hospital room and looked up from my screen. I could see her veins bulging. They were always prominent, but the saline infusion made them appear ready to burst. Tubes and wires emerged from her, seemingly born out of nothing. She was wearing a blue patient gown and several white blankets covered her. Nothing she wore was hers. Should I run home and get one of her blankets? I looked back down.
My focus returned to my screen and I read the vignette: “A 28-year-old expired at a basketball game following a sudden cardiac arrest. The pathology report would show predominantly what types of cells four days after death?” An image was attached and the hematoxylin and eosin staining made it explode with all shades of red and purple.
We think of the human body as having organization, but this slide revealed the microscopic truth. Cells of all different shapes and sizes were mashed together, forming scarlet rivers and violet lakes with seemingly no purpose, at least to my untrained eye. The picture may as well have been painted by Pollock. I did not know the answer, so I took my best guess and clicked forward. An all too familiar large, red “X” appeared. I sighed deeply — another question I would have to review.
My attention swung back and forth between my mom, my screen and the pairs of eyes periodically peering into the hospital room. The privacy blinds were up, but the wall facing out was made entirely of glass and the blind did not fully cover the corners. It felt like we were fish being observed in an aquarium. The eyes belonged to hospital staff checking in to make sure everything was okay, but being able to see their partial gaze made it feel like we were being spied on. Despite the uneasiness it gave me, I appreciated their concern. They just wanted to take care of Mom. I briefly looked back at her. How unfair — her face was sunken from exhaustion and prolonged illness. How unfair. I looked back down.
I focused on the next question on my screen. Another patient had expired as if they were a carton of milk left too long in the fridge. The nonchalant way in which the questions were presenting death, disease and illness highlighted the absurdity of my situation. I was hunched over my computer, reading fake accounts of patients while my mother was possibly dying right in front of me. If she was, I would be spending some of my final moments with her trying to remember what type of cells would be present in a fake, expired patient. How could this possibly matter? Would I even use this knowledge as a doctor? Yet, the biggest test I would take as a medical student was just three weeks away and it would determine my entire future career.
More eyes peeked in and I wondered if something was wrong. Maybe they were pondering what I was doing? How could this patient’s son be so focused on his computer while his mother lay sick right in front of him? I met one set of eyes for a moment and silently pleaded my case, hoping the anxiety and guilt boiling inside of me would somehow reach them and make them understand. I am going to be a doctor one day. I have to do well to get there. I have to pass. For now, though, I was looking out of the window instead of in. I looked back at Mom. She was breathing softly, her lips were barely puffing out from her breath. She was peacefully asleep. I looked back down.
Image credit: Pollock (CC BY 2.0) by Antonio Campoy Ederra