Siraj Zahr is an MD/PhD candidate currently in his final year of medical school at the University of Toronto.
“CODE BLUE,” the overhead speaker blared.
With a surge of adrenaline, I blindly followed a group of nurses and physicians towards the trauma case that had just rolled in.
In the crowded room, I assumed that the appropriate thing that I, a third-year med student, should do was to occupy the least amount of space so as not to interfere with the flow of more useful people. Having spent much of my surgery rotation in an OR, I had become quite adept at not bumping into anyone in crowded spaces. I grabbed an N95 mask and placed it on my face.
The organized chaos of the resuscitation team was quite impressive to behold. I was told to be ready to take over chest compressions at any moment. What was that feeling? My abdomen tightened…A theoretical bowel movement maybe? I tried desperately to comfort myself. It’s ok, I’m great with mannequins.
“You can go in and take over compressions…now is your time to shine,” a stranger said to me. I half smiled, trying to conceal my existential dread. How does it go again? Y-M-C-A or something like that…but how much pressure do I apply? I took a deep breath. Don’t be that violinist that slips out of tune. I stepped forward and waited to take over.
What a second ago was just another case that I was looking in on now had a face—a blood-stained teenage face, surrounded by curly hair. I was struck by the unfairness of it all. I felt a sharp pain in my chest that intensified the more I imagined the horror of the kid’s parents arriving to their worst nightmare. At this point, I was tempted to retreat into the comfort of my mind’s abstractions. Instead, I allowed myself to honour the pain and discomfort I felt in my body.
Before I had the chance to take over, the trauma team leader decided that any further effort was futile and declared the time of death. I exhaled, lightheaded. How long had I been holding in my breath? Someone check my O2 sats. The room remained noisy for a few seconds as if nothing had changed before a nurse asked everyone to quiet down for a moment of silence. Heavy stillness permeated the room; no eye contact was made. Made sense to me, eyes convey the depth of the tragedy.
In that moment there was something else that I couldn’t place my finger on. What was it? A nagging familiarity I felt deep inside. Have I been in this situation before? A vague image started to emerge from the subconscious depths of my mind, gradually coalescing into higher and higher resolution. Ah, it’s you. It was the face of one of my childhood best friends, whom I’d lost to a fatal accident several years ago. This moment of silence was for him too.
We eventually left the room and returned to the ward. The list of patients to be seen had accumulated. I felt emotionally drained, not even midway through my shift. I wanted to get some fresh air and process everything, but the all-familiar insecurity of not being perceived as hard-working or productive crept in. The plight of the med student, trying to impress, needing to repress. Being evaluated by a different person every emergency shift didn’t help.
Guilty for being a spectator for the past few hours and not having seen any patients, I clicked on the next electronic chart. I had felt enough for one morning. I need a distraction, I rationalized to myself. Hopefully this patient will have a happier outcome.