Agraphia Medical Tragicomedy


This Mortal Coil

I remember all my first deaths.

The very first was our cadaver in medical school.  As first year medical students, we shuffled quietly into anatomy lab, nervous giggles escaping pockets among the crowd.  Lying cold, still, aseptic, was our body.  Charlie.   It's an unsettling feeling, laying hands on a dead body.  There is a quiet dignity about death, a final stillness that is unmistakeable.  I remember stainless steel tables with stainless steel scalpels, and the subtle scent of formaldehyde barely masked by the cloying smell of wintergreen.  My hands shook violently as I made the first incision.

The second was the first death I ever witnessed in person.  Surprisingly, it took until my 4th year of medical school, on an ER rotation in Seattle.  He was an elderly gentleman who had shot himself in the head after downing a 5th of vodka when his wife divorced him.  His features were barely recognizable with all the damage.  He was intubated, paralyzed, and barely had a pulse on arrival.  CPR continued only for 5 minutes before he was pronounced dead; somewhat of an afterthought.  The only thing keeping his heart beating until he reached the hospital were the massive doses of epinepherine circulating in his bloodstream.  I remember being sorry for him, but not devastated - he was already DOA.

Last night, my patient died.


I sprinted downstairs and into the trauma room, a sea of faces greeting me.  My favorite nurses, our best physicians, waiting.   These are the most capable people I know.  They were ready -  I prepared myself for the survey.  As the trauma intern, it's my job to perform the whole physical examination in front of everyone and call out significant findings.  All we knew is that the patient was a 70-ish woman in a car accident.

The medics rolled the stretcher in, and instantly the mood changed; suddenly silent and tense as we saw how bad off she really was.  For a second, the only sound was her quiet wailing, "Oh, Lord.  Oh, Lordy, my arm hurts.  Please, my arm hurts so badly..."

The moment ground to a halt.  I remember utter quiet as the seconds ticked by, as long as minutes.  Her forearm had three joints where it should only have two...

Silently, I took in the damage.  Horrific, tenting fracture to the left forearm.  Right wrist splayed off to the side, every bone in her hand likely shattered.  Right ankle sideways.  Left shin with shards of bone sticking out the front.  Amazingly, she was still talking and protecting her airway, the first thing ever said in a trauma assessment.

So I spoke.

"Airway... is currently intact."

Time sped up, sounds and colors rushing in to fill the void.  What once was silence and stillness was bedlam and cacophany.  Everyone talking.  Everything moving.  I was lost in the exam, hoping against hope that if I could just find the one thing that was wrong, I could save her.  But there was too much.

Broken bones were quickly realigned, blood lost was quickly replaced, but we were waging a war against death and we were losing.  For every vein that we accessed, another collapsed.  For every unit of blood given, she bled two more.  I was struck for a moment by how beautiful it was, all of these people working in harmony to try to save one life.   Grim faces and furrowed brows desperate to help this stranger.  People at their best.

Blood pressure started dropping.  I had my hand on her pulse and felt it ebbing away, slowly, surely, towards that final quiet stillness.  I remember at one point looking up at the clock and realizing an hour and ten minutes had elapsed.   There was the chill, certain realization that nothing would stop this woman from dying.  My fingers felt her pulse getting weaker.  Slower. Fading.  A few minutes later, she was dead.  Everyone shuffled out of the trauma bay until it was just me and her.  I was struck by how cold she was.   Like Charlie.


Off to save a life, this time.

Comments (6) Trackbacks (0)
  1. :-(

    That sounds really hard. I’m so sorry! We had a similar case when I was on trauma, but he had the comparative luxury of dying under anesthesia. It was pretty heart wrenching, as I imagine this was too.

    Incidentally, thanks for linking me! I had a pretty good laugh looking at the link.

  2. I remember my cadaver in Nursing school. One moment it was a little old lady who happened to be dead and the next week I came back to a skinless cadaver. Creepy.

    What happened with the pediatric trauma?

  3. He was ok, actually he just got out of the hospital a couple days ago. Family was very grateful… he was a great patient.

  4. My first dead patient was in nursing school, a lady with CA who died in her sleep with a tiny smile on her lips.

    What surprises me now is how one death in the ED will be sad but just another part of my shift….and others will haunt me for a long time. It’s hard to predict which one it’ll be sometimes.

  5. All I have to say is…don’t cut the facial artery :)

  6. best post yet. I liked how you describe the teamwork and people at their best. I agree.

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