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An inconvenient death

/ 10:48 PM August 19, 2013

Witnessing death is like having a Dementor suck the life out of you. You realize that a part of you dies with every person you see expire. When you watch death and dying like a nightmarish flick on a daily basis, you may be deluded into thinking that you would be able to get used to it.

Yesterday, I learned that you simply never do.

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Before my father’s untimely death early in 2005, dying to me was just a very painful kind of fiction you either watch or read about. All the pink thoughts of rainbows and unicorns vanished along with the first flatline I ever saw. Little did I know that it would not be the last but in fact the first of many I have to painfully watch go by in very long, sad stretches. The next school year, I enrolled in nursing school where clinical exposure left me with no choice but to watch not only patients die but also their families and friends thrown into grief, a pit you never want anyone to fall into.

The first patient who died under my clinically uncomprehending eye as a nursing student was an aged lady with blocked coronary arteries. After I painstakingly went through the protocol of resuscitation in an attempt to revive her, the patient still died, a day short of her surgery. I was crushed. In time, we would come across patients in the emergency department, catapulted from car wrecks or motorbike accidents, destabilizing while being cut open on the operating table, dying during childbirth, and children lapsing into that deep eternal sleep from which they will never awaken.

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I used to reprimand myself for choosing this life over a comfortable office life, like writing or sales, which would guard me against the unnecessary havoc of having blood stain my clothes, and death, which never smells good on a white ensemble. At a certain point, I was even slightly delusional. I was born to witness people get better, not get worse. I had this idealistic thinking that to become a really good nurse, you have to be tugging at the other end of the rope. You have to be the one witnessing people live.

It was not only patients I secretly grieved for. In between the years, I lamented the friends, an uncle, and a neighbor who passed away. Some of them had been sick for a long time, others at an inopportune time, or an inconvenient age. A high school classmate’s death shocked us all. Who dies at 19, anyway? The thought of lying in a coffin under a tombstone while all your friends are busy graduating, getting their first jobs, or starting a family makes me miserable. How does anybody deserve to miss out on those milestones?

Months before I went to Oman, a college friend passed away. She was working then at a call center in Manila and lapsed into a fever. When she went home because her illness was unnaturally progressing, the doctors diagnosed it as a bad case of typhoid fever. She went into cardiac arrest a number of times and was briefly comatose, until finally she died. I can still recall walking into the mortuary through the backdoor and turning back the white cloth to reveal the peaceful face of a friend now lying atop a tiled sink. Suddenly, it was my father dying all over again. A voice was screaming inside me: It can’t happen to me, it can’t happen to me! But, alas, it just did.

I have been working in this sultanate for over two years now—a thousand miles away from home, and still my job pierces me. My assignment happens to be in a place where road traffic accidents abound on a daily basis, a crossroad where huge trucks drive in and out of logistics warehouses alongside private vehicles, motorbikes driven by children, commuter buses, and vans. In a matter of months I must have seen some of the worst anatomic wrecks known to humans—badly broken bones, crushed brains, charred bodies.

The worst is not the reek of blood or misplaced insides, but the anguish of parents, children, husbands, and wives over their loss. Grief is as inescapable as death, and is without exemptions. The agonized cry of the bereaved, whether in an abaya, saree, or coat and tie, over a dead loved one echoes down the hall like a bad dream every time.

Something much more sad than grief itself is our vulnerability to it. Sadly, you can never prepare or practice enough to immunize yourself against it. It is something all of us will have to go through. A few days ago, we lost a good friend and coworker in a terrible car accident. The memory of his calm commanding voice to start CPR, push medications, shock, or defibrillate, and the unusual paradox still wash over me: The doctor who was once responsible for so many patients on the brink of death is now the one lying on the very same bed fighting for his own survival. He is helpless against the devices he used to know by heart, he is unresponsive to the same medications he once ordered for other persons. He is hardly aware of the anguish surrounding his deathbed, which he must have known how to control all his grownup life.

It suddenly felt surreal that we will not get to see this person at work anymore.

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People always see the spectacular here and now, and that is not necessarily incorrect. However, this should remind us that death is not merely a bitter fable; it is a truth we all have to live with. Shabby as it may sound, I find myself seriously thinking of telling the people I love how much they mean to me, because you will never know if you and I, in the most inconvenient time, will cease to exist.

Monice Razo, 24, is a nurse working in the Sultanate of Oman. She says she is terrified by the thought of death even if she often works around dead people.

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TAGS: death, Oman, overseas Filipino worker, Philippines
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