My Momentary Loss of Humanity

On a Tuesday evening in December of 2015, I was confronted with my ugly inhumanity.

At the time, I was a junior clinical clerk on my night shift in the cardiology department. It was a slow evening in Ward 5C as usual. Patients of less severe conditions tend to be placed here. After all, this is not 5D, just a short hallway away, which houses higher risk cardiology patients.

I was chatting with a fellow junior clerk GL when the intercom calmly announced, “9595, East Campus, 5D.”

“9595, East Campus, 5D.”

GL and I glanced at each other, unsure whether we should take action. We both knew what 9595 meant—9595 was the in-hospital emergency code, akin to “Code Blue” often heard on TV shows. After a brief hesitation, we nodded, and ran to the neighboring ward.

A curious crowd had already gathered outside a room. A nurse quickly pushed a medical cart inside, and we followed along. A resident was yelling for an Ambu bag, while another was pressing down on the chest of an old man, and counting the repetitions aloud. A nurse rushed past us with the Ambu bag, bumping me to the side in her hurry.

For months, I had heard a few other clerks boast of performing CPR and saving lives in Code 9595 situations. Though I always found their brags disingenuous and distasteful, as another overachieving medical student, hungry for experience and practice, I envied them. This was my opportunity.

So I waited nearby for a chance to help. I was hoping the resident would switch out—she should tire soon because chest compressions are exhausting—and I could jump in. This was exhilarating.

As I waited, I could feel more people gathering outside, a sea of white coats in my peripheral vision. One of them approached and tapped me on the shoulder.

“What’s going on here?” A wide smile that could barely contain his gloating excitement greeted me. It was a clerk from another department.

Was I smiling? Was my smile as grotesque as his? I was not sure. But I knew deep down inside, I wanted something to happen. I wanted an experience. Either I could help save a life. Or if that was not happening… I was wanting to at least see someone die.

The chief resident had by now taken notice of the people gathering both outside and inside. Evidently annoyed, she barked at us all to get the fuck out of the room if we are not helping. Sitting immediately outside was a curled-up, sobbing old woman in the arms of her teary son. They were being comforted by a nurse. At this point, I was feeling fairly disgusted by the whole situation and myself, so I told GL that I want to go back to 5C. She agreed that there was not much to do here.

A few days later, it was another slow day at 5C. GL was studying patient charts, and asked if I wanted to know what happened to that old patient.

I told her, “no.”

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4 thoughts on “My Momentary Loss of Humanity

  1. I appreciate the honest self-reflection. It must be a haunting moment seeing a patient crash and then realizing your not-altogether-altruistic motives for seeing this experience.
    And I think you made the right decision at the end? The patient wasn’t in your circle of care, so it was good to respect their privacy.
    That being said, if you had been on the team responsible for the patient, it would have been a good experience learning to manage acute situations, to comfort family members in these situations, and to come to terms with your own thoughts and emotions.

    1. @inksquid: To be fair, I think GL was not in breach of confidentiality when she looked up the patient’s records. We are at a teaching hospital, and all the patients admitted have signed a confidentiality waiver that allows records for use in educational purposes. (Patients have a right to refuse at the onset or at any point, of course). So it was fine for GL to study the patient’s charts. For me, though, reading the charts would have simply been to satisfy my curiosity. I think the whole affair had me already feeling pretty awful, and I didn’t want to add further to it.

      Anyways, thanks for the words of encouragement. ^ ^

  2. Yeah old post I know but good story. Brings me back to the ‘good old days’ of clinical clerking (inbetween anime blogging!). I think this is one of those situations that all of us in medicine will fall into. The trap of wanting to ‘see something cool’, ‘do something cool’, tempered by not having the most altrusitic reasons for doing it. Eventually you will fall into a different trap. That of professional indifference.

    In this profession it’s rather easy to be used to life and death. You will purposefully and professionally be detatched even if just so that you don’t ruin your own life endlessly thinking about what you say every day, even if it never works out quite how you think. Still, I can’t count the number of codes I’ve had where I’m annoyed my long awaited 5pm lunch was interrupted and once it’s over I rush right back to my sandwich.

    So the fact that you are reflecting on this probably puts you on a higher level than most others so you shouldn’t be ashamed at all. The trick to is be able to keep just enough of that humanity with you so you remember why you’re doing this in the first place but not lose your ability to be a professional.

    Funny enough the one event that got me the most over the years was witnessing a particularly gruesome death, then going home and watching an episode of anime and coincidentally seeing an anime version of that exact same scenario play out and then reading from various bloggers about how awesome and accurate a scene it was (it was neither awesome nor accurate from my point of view!).

    1. I’ve waited until I’m an intern to reply to this comment to see if I’m slowly experiencing that professional detachment. My brother, currently an ENT CR, has shared something similar. Grotesque facial traumas, lost lives, decapitations, and incredible repairs are often reduced to curious cases or displays of his surgical skills. The numerous other patients are just tiresome work that cuts time from his sleep or research. I’m still wide-eyed enough right now to marvel at most things, but I’m sure I’ll start to grow annoyed at dealing with people and the more routine stuff. Already, I find I’m sometimes vexed by patients that “have too many irrelevant questions” during ward admission routines.

      Maybe I need to slow down again. Or maybe this is just growing into this profession. Either way, I’m comforted by your words.

      P.s. I’d love to watch that “awesome” and “accurate” scene!

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