I like working weekends on the surgical ward. There are no elective surgeries, so we don’t have many new patients. Most of the surgical patients from the week have been discharged by Saturday, but if not I get to send them home over the weekend. We don’t order many tests, or make many referrals, or really ... do anything much.
But yesterday the weekend shift delivered my creepiest moment in medicine so far. My consultant asked me to be the second doctor to verify a death on a palliative patient who’d passed away that morning. For patients who wish to be cremated, two separate doctors have to verify the death instead of the usual one.
I can usually handle deaths. I’ve verified deaths, been involved in failed resuscitations and dissected cadavers, so I thought I’d be ok.
Not this time. I made my way into the darkened room ... didn’t think to turn the light on ... and drew back the curtain to reveal, there where our patient lay just an hour before, a blue body bag. I hadn’t been expecting the body bag. I had to stand there for a minute working up the courage to unzip the bag and examine the body.
I shouldn’t have given myself time to think about it.
Because when you stand there staring at it, you start to think that there could be worse options than finding a dead body inside. What if ... what if the patient isn’t dead? What if you unzip the bag and the patient opens his eyes and looks at you? Gasps for air? Grabs your arm? What if there isn’t a body at all? What if??
Next time I will ask a nurse to come and hold my hand.