Thursday, December 07, 2006


Death is something that people imagine pathologists are surrounded by, although for most of us autopsies are not the majority of our workload. There is an assumption that we are unaffected by death since we apparently see it so often, but the reality is that a surprising number of pathologists chose the specialty partly to escape the distress and death we were seeing on the wards.

The number of people and families whose lives were shredded by disease and death that you can see in hospitals sometimes seems relentless. Maybe the ones who recover and the tales of hope are some compensation but the continual round of death in the face of your best medical efforts can get depressing. Non-medics imagine it gets easier but it doesn’t; something I realised when I was a house officer when I saw my macho surgical SHO crying on the ward after the death of a patient.

I was on the ward when one of our post-op patients started bleeding. It was several days since the operation and he had been doing well. I’d seen him on the ward round in the morning and he’d told us a joke but the next time I saw him he was grey and sitting in a pool of blood, blood down his chest and blood on the floor. Two of the other patients, both big men, were shuffling out of the bay, white-faced and shaking. We struggled to get a cannula in while the blood kept coming. I can still see the look of terror in his eyes.

The autopsy showed that a major artery had burst and there would have been no way we could have saved him.

Watching somebody die is not something I have to see at work anymore. A dead body is very different, the soul, if you believe in such a thing, has gone and looking into the eyes give no clue as to who once lived there. Dead bodies hold no horrors, the process of death is another matter.


At 23:56, Blogger HospitalPhoenix said...

It's an awful thing to see, isn't it?

I'll never forget seeing a (fairly healthy) man in his 50s lose his entire blood volume in the space of about 10 minutes. He was looking me in the eye as he stroked out, and the team around the bed were squeezing in bags of blood even though we knew he was gone.


As part of my research I had to go and retrieve body parts from the pathology department. It's hard to explain, it's an entirely different feeling of death. Not upsetting of depressing, but just... sort of... weird.

I think death still has a sort of taboo, an element of shock, even for experienced medics. After years of surgical training I found it utterly bizarre to use my Black-and-Decker tools on a dead person's body. And I found it weird that the pathologist at the table next to me would chatter away cheerfully whilst guddling around in a dead person's abdomen and thorax.

This whole medicine lark is a bit bizarre really, isn't it?

At 19:14, Blogger Dr K said...

It certainly is! Sometimes as I go into the mortuary I think of my friends who have a computer and a phone on the table in front of them when they get to work in the morning and it all seems rather surreal.


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