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Dying With Dignity

Dr. Rob wrote a touching blog post today about death and dying.  He contrasts two deaths – one in which the family members were excluded from the room as physicians deliberated about the patient’s heart rhythm (while she was dying), and another one in which a patient was surrounded by family members who sang a hymn and held him in their arms as he passed.

Although the ultimate mortality rate of individuals has been 100% throughout history, physicians are trained to fight death at all costs.  When you think about it – we must be the most optimistic profession on the face of the planet.  Who else would leap headlong into a battle where others have had a 100% failure rate since the beginning of time?

Instead of thinking of medicine as a means to defeat death, I think we should consider it a tool to celebrate life.  Adding life to years is so much more important than adding years to life – and yet we often don’t behave as if we believe that.  Unfortunately in my experience, death has not been handled well in hospitals.  For every hymn singing departure, there must be 100 cold, lonely, clinical deaths surrounded by a crash cart, CPR and shouting.

I remember my first death as a code team leader in the ER.  An obese, elderly man was brought in on a stretcher by EMS to the trauma bay.  They were administering CPR and using a bag valve mask to ventilate his lungs.  He skin was blueish and there was absolutely no movement in his lifeless body.  His eyes were glassy, there was no rhythm on the heart monitor… I knew he was long gone.  The attending asked if I’d like to practice placing a central line on him, or if I’d like to intubate him to get further experience with the procedure.  She saw that I was hesitant and she responded, “This is a teaching hospital.  It is expected that residents learn how to do procedures on patients.  You should take this opportunity to practice, since it won’t hurt him and it’s part of the code protocol.”

As I looked down at the man I overheard that his family had arrived and was awaiting news in the waiting area.   I sighed and closed his eyes with my gloved hand, gently moving his hair off his forehead.   I looked up and told the attending that I was sorry but I couldn’t justify “practicing” on the man while his family waited for news.  I took off my gloves, quietly asked the nurses to please prepare the body for viewing, and walked with my head hung to the private waiting room.

The family scanned my face intensely – they could see immediately that their fears were confirmed by my expression.  I sat down very close to them and told them that their loved one had died prior to arrival in the Emergency Department, and that he did not appear to have suffered.  I told them that we did all we could to revive him, but that there wasn’t any hint of recovery at any point.  I explained that his death was quick and likely painless – probably due to a massive heart attack.  I told them that they could see him when they were ready, and that I believed that he had passed away with dignity.  They burst into tears and thanked me for being with him at the end.  I hugged his wife and walked the family to his bedside and closed the curtains around them so they could say goodbye in their own way.  I hoped that they felt some warmth on that very dark night.  “Doing nothing” was the best I could do.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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3 Responses to “Dying With Dignity”

  1. rlbates says:

    Dr Val,  you did so much more than “nothing”!

  2. Number One Dinosaur says:

    You didn’t “do nothing.” You were present — emotionally as well as physically — for the family when they most needed someone. You “witnessed”; the death, as well as the meaning of the death, which was more than the attending did.

    You have every right to be proud of your conduct that night.

  3. KellyClose says:

    thanks so much for this insider view. i hope your instincts are shared by many doctors in training. 

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