Nothing can truly prepare you for the death of a child.
When I decided to go into the field of pediatrics, I knew that the vast majority of the patient population I served were likely to survive the ailments that came their way, mainly because the bodies of young people are simply more resilient than the bodies of older populations. I knew that I would have such a fun time engaging in the multiple facets of my career and interacting with both my patients and their respective families. I knew that helping to not only heal, but to also keep children healthy would likely pay incredible dividends as they continue to grow and develop into the healthy and resilient adults that they have the potential to be. That being said, I also knew that there would be times where some of the children I encountered would not be granted the chance to become the healthy and resilient adults that we always strive to help them become. They would instead depart from this world and evolve into the beautiful angels that we all hope to become once our respective times on this ride we call life finally come to an end.
Even though I clearly understood that practicing medicine in the field of pediatrics would mean that I would sometimes witness children die, it never makes that pill any less bitter to swallow each time it happens. Maybe it hurts more because relative to adult medicine, we see death much less frequently. Or maybe it’s because anyone in their right sense of mind would agree that children and death are two words that should never naturally fit together. One thing I do know for certain is that it is NEVER easy to communicate to parents that their child is either dying or has transitioned from this planet unexpectedly, especially when the parents have been nothing but generous and grateful to us as we provide the best care we can for their loved ones. I have found it equally as difficult to put myself in the parents’ shoes whenever I think about what they and their families must be going through as they grieve over the loss of their child. There are really no words to describe the crushing feeling I experience as a result of that mental exercise, especially when I know that the parents had placed their full faith in us and had truly believed that things would be okay with their loved one as long as they were within our care. As painful as it is, I am also aware that this exercise helps me become an even better healer and strengthens my ability to empathize with the families I serve.
The importance of talking to others that you can trust while dealing with the impact of a child’s death cannot be bolded, underlined and highlighted enough. Witnessing an event as tragic as that is never normal and it can be hard to adequately reflect on it as you grind out your daily routine in the hospital and try to provide the best care you can for the other patients on your service that you are responsible for. Processing it all becomes an even harder task when multiple deaths occur in such a short timeframe. The weight of those events have the potential to place a heavy toll on your mental health, and the symptoms that come as a consequence can express themselves in a variety of ways. Having someone to talk to is so important because if you keep the pain that you’ve acquired from these experiences bottled in, you can pretty much guarantee that the pressure generated in that bottle over time will cause it to explode one day, which in turn would manifest itself in ways that you would have never predicted. By talking through your feelings and allowing yourself to process and feel the emotions that your mind, body and spirit are trying to work through, you are giving yourself a chance to deal with these heavy experiences in a healthy way. Along with talking through your emotions and allowing yourself to feel them, there are a variety of other healthy ways to process them such as writing, exercising, blogging, drawing, taking walks, meditating, practicing mindfulness, praying, gardening, etc. Whatever you do, please do not try to permanently suppress what you are feeling. That is not healthy and will only hurt you and the ones you love as time goes on.
To be honest, working two back-to-back ICU rotations is exhausting. Through the PICU/NICU grind, there have been days that were relatively better than others where I have been able to complete all my duties in a reasonable time period and used the rest of my time to learn, teach, and socialize with my patients and their families. There have been other days that were incredibly difficult for numerous reasons, resulting in me staying well past my sign-out time in order to finish out the work I needed to do for my patients. I’ve lost a good amount of sleep throughout the past several weeks and have had to force myself to keep up with the shrinking social life that I’ve had outside of the hospital as of late. It has also been tough to keep myself engaged in the various non-clinical activities that I’ve committed to, simply because the time I have to allocate to each of them is quite limited. I’ve had to continuously adapt to my circumstances and to efficiently manage my time so that I could still give some energy to these other activities. With that said, I’m still giving myself some grace because self-care is paramount and burnout is a real thing, especially when it seems as if the world is burning down all around us. Through it all, I’ve somehow managed to keep a positive attitude, for the most part. I’ve only been able to do so because I’ve had the pleasure to work with such awesome residents and faculty in my program, I’ve kept prayerful, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a significant other who has been nothing but loving and supporting throughout this tough stretch of work, I have a strong support network full of friends, mentors and loved ones, and I truly feel that I was called to work in the field I’m in. Without all of that, there’s no telling where I would be right now.
On that note, I’ll bring this post to an end. Thanks for reading and be sure to cherish your loved ones!
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“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.” – Washington Irving
– Black Man, M.D.