Thursday, March 24, 2011

I See Dead People

No one wants to talk about it.
It's as if the mere mention is a curse, sure to bring about an untimely demise.

After a long day, as I was winding down, I glanced at the obituaries in the newspaper. I do this somewhat regularly, to see if any familiar names show up.  Sometimes, it will be an old friend.  Tonight, a patient.  One we haven't seen for a while.  I had been wondering.

It got me thinking about something I'd like to say to people taking their first EMT class. Something no one told me.

You're going to get to know a lot of dead people.

Some of them will be dead when you meet.  You might learn something about them from their grieving families, or from pictures on the wall.  Or by reading their obituary a day or two later.  You might never know anything about them at all.

Some will die while you are with them.  It may be quick or slow. You may have the chance to try to do something about it, or you may not.  It could be medical or trauma. Young or old.  Although you may not get to talk to them, or not for long, just by being there, by sharing that most intimate experience, you and they will be connected.  The experience may not be what you expected, in one way or another. It wasn't, for me, but it's too personal to try to explain what I mean. Chances are, you will remember every one of them for a long time.  Maybe forever.

If you work in a small town, where you go to most of the calls, you may get to know some patients pretty well. Since becoming an EMT, I've met more people in this town than I ever knew before.  I've also gotten a somewhat skewed perspective, where it seems like an unusually large percentage of the people are old and sick. Not that all older people are sick, or that all sick people are old, but if they ARE both old and sick, chances are, we'll meet.

And being both old and sick, chances are pretty good that before awfully long, they'll die.  They might get a bit older first. They might get a bit sicker.  But no one is going to skip the ending.

I hadn't anticipated this aspect of the job.  Hadn't ever thought about knowing more and more people who would die. Often people who would die sooner rather than later. Hadn't considered that I'd need to find a way to accept, or even embrace, that part of the job.

Although I've found a certain peace with it, and use that to encourage getting to know and appreciate people while I have the chance, whether that chance lasts a few minutes, or a few years, I'll admit that sometimes it's still hard when I recognize those names.  It feels personal, somehow, when they die. Not like I have somehow failed, or like I should have been able to save them, although I certainly wish we could have.  But like they were one of mine, or on my team, or something.  Like I have a responsibility.  To remember them. To show respect.  To feel the sadness.

There are more and more houses in my town that hold those ghosts.

I'd rather have that, than never have met them.
Some people, as they recognize that they are dying, and face that with courage and dignity, are pretty damned inspirational.
Some fight it tooth and nail, to the very end, and demonstrate incredible strength in adversity.
Some don't fit that model of "inspirational," they don't "rise above it," but are so very human in their struggles, as they lose control, as their body fails, that it touches my heart with the sheer blunt honesty of it.
And some, who never saw it coming, are a reminder that it will. Inevitably. Maybe today.

"Let us endeavor to live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry."  ~Mark Twain