Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The common bond that we all share

[Note:  I started this ten days ago on July 7 and just finished it today.  That's why it starts off the way it does.]

I’m going to just write something quick since I have to get some things done tonight and get adequate sleep before going to the hospital tomorrow morning for my rotation in the intensive care unit.

Today, July 7, is my birthday.  Birthdays are almost never big or special for me.  I usually end up just relaxing by myself.  The only really festive birthday that I will truly never forget was my birthday in the hospital in 2009.

A friend surprised me today with a few gifts on my birthday.  Because we had only recently met, she did not know the full story and details of what happened the day of my accident, the immediate aftermath or the following two weeks I spent in the intensive care unit.  After about five or ten minutes of me talking, my friend was in tears.

The things I explained to her were told to me many times by my family and friends since I do not remember anything from that time.  The sights and sounds that were described to me seemed to mimic the things I witnessed while in the “doctor” point of view in the intensive care unit last week.

One of my patients last week was in a coma.  The first thing I noticed as I entered the room was the smell of sterile chemicals on a backdrop of the slight smell of human wastes.  It all smelled too familiar.  This previously healthy, very young patient was not responding to light touch or loud voices but would react to painful stimuli.  She had been unresponsive for several days.  I was able to speak with her very concerned mother and brother.  The patient’s brother was very protective of his sister and told his mother a few times that he wanted to go through his sister’s phone, in case she had been speaking to someone who may have given her illicit drugs that could have caused her current state.  At one point, I saw her brother whisper something to her and kiss her on the forehead.  The next day, the patient was able to open her eyes slightly and nod her head.  The following day, I was thrilled to see that she was sitting up and speaking, though her insight on her condition was a bit cloudy.

The experiences in the intensive care unit last week combined with my birthday and my telling to my friend about my experience as a patient all really made me once again appreciate the fragility of life.

The patient who was in the coma had been previously healthy.  I, too, had been previously healthy.  We both had family and friends that love us and were very concerned.  Both of us had been in a very uncertain condition.  We both also appeared and smelled in an embarrassing way that we wish no one else could have seen.

These days, I see patients who are on the brink of death.  Just a few days ago, I was in the room while a patient took his last breath.

Death is a subject about which I have a thought a considerable amount this past year.

It is also a subject that we do not really discuss.  But I said in my last post that I would continue to be honest and that is what I am doing.

Have we become desensitized to death?

When I’m in the hospitals, I regularly hear people talk about a patient passing away.  It is usually just an acknowledgement of the person’s passing and then the conversation changes to something else.

“Why don’t the newscasters cry when they talk about people who die? At least they could be decent enough to put just a tear in their eyes.”  - Jack Johnson, “The News”

This inattention to the gravity of death is surprising to me.  I understand how regularly seeing and hearing about people passing away may make us insensitive to it and we do not let it affect us.  But we must not allow this make us numb.

I am not sure how many of you watched my last talk at MIST but in there I discuss the pride that we all have.  We all seem to consider ourselves invincible.  Illnesses cannot fall upon us because, quite frankly, those things are for “sick people”.  They are for “the other people”.  Death comes to these “other people”.  We cannot imagine ourselves lying in bed with multiple tubes and wires connected to our body.  We cannot imagine that the doughnuts and ice cream we love to eat may give us diabetes and that if we are still reckless and do not manage that, our kidneys may fail, we may go blind or our feet may eventually have to be amputated.

We cannot imagine ourselves waking up in a hospital bed and being completely paralyzed.

No, those things cannot happen to us.  Those are simply academic things that we learn about in medical school or that we see in movies or read about in books.  There is a dramatic finish and the person lives on in the memories of others.  Those types of things do not happen to people like me.

I would explain this more but I feel like this page from The Death of Ivan Ilych by the 19th century Russian author Leo Tolstoy expresses this exceptionally well:

Death is something that is inevitable.  That is no surprise.  But then why does it surprise us?  Why do we shy away from this topic?

When we die, that’s it.  We are done.  There is no reset button.  There are no second chances.  A mere few years later, who we are and what we have done are completely forgotten.

Most of us never really think about this—and I mean really think about this.  What are we doing right now?  What does this exact moment mean to us?

You will never be as young as you were when I started this post.

The finality of our life is perhaps why it takes some people a few days before they can actually accept and properly grieve the loss of a loved one.  That person is gone.  They are never coming back.  I have so many memories of that person.  I can remember everything so vividly.  I remember the sound of their voice and the smell of their clothing.  I remember how they were so happy and surprised that one time.  I remember how sad they were another time.  If only I had another day to spend with that person, I would let them know how much they mean to me and how much I will miss them.  I never really let them know before and now it is too late.

We should not live our life in regret.

As I have said before:  love before it's too late.  Love before you lose.

The 6th century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote in his work Tao Te Ching in regards to a soldier going to war:  "His enemies are not demons, but human beings like himself. He doesn't wish them personal harm. Nor does he rejoice in victory. How could he rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if he were attending a funeral."

Media sources today are all disappointing.  We can only blame ourselves for that.  What happens when we hear about a school shooting or an attack when innocent people lost their lives, like in the recent Boston Marathon bombing?  The news sources focus on the killers.  Their photos are everywhere and the killers become household names.  Bluntly put, we glorify the killers.  We immortalize them.  This produces even more killers from psychologically disturbed and immature people who also seek their own version of glory.  And that is all we, as a society, talk about, too.

We do not focus on those who died.  We buy into the sensationalism and hysteria that is created and, in short, we let the killers and terrorists win as they become notorious and they cause us to live in fear.

The people who died become a number.  People, both locally and internationally, who die from diseases or attacks are not even given a second thought when we hear or read about them in the news.

We lose our humanity.

Each and every person we meet is just like us.  Every person around the world who dies is like us.  They, too, were once a child with joys, fears, insecurities and flaws.  They, too, knew friendship and betrayal.  They, too, knew love and heartbreak.  We all experience seemingly endless joy.  We all cry.  Our problems are not bigger than the problems of others.  Our pain is not any more special or significant than the pain of others.  It does not matter if we are rich or poor, atheist or Christian, educated or uneducated, a model citizen or a criminal.

We all want a second chance. 

We all wish we had more time.

Do not lose your humanity.  The next time you hear about someone—anyone—who is sick or dying, realize that that may have been us.  That person, or that group of people, lived, laughed, loved, feared, cried and experienced all the feelings we experience.


  1. Powerful and thought-provoking. And extremely true. My husband was the one attached to wires and as I read your post, I remember him and what an impact death had on us, so early on in life. We too, could not deciper that cancer would overide his life at just 33.

    May Allah (SWT) make all your hardships easier.

  2. What a beautiful post. may Allah SWT reward you and always keep you in His high regard. Keep writing!

  3. always remember that time is fleeting. this is also a fabulous post on death in islam, especially about the ones the deceased have left behind: