September 15, 2010

Cause of Death

"The list is up!"
"What list?"
"How our donors died.  You can see how old they were and everything!"

We are crowded around the paper, taped to the dry-erase board.  Our donor heads the list; our table is the first one on our wing.  She was 85 and died of several different things.  She is not alone: most of the donors are older individuals and their list of ailments runs to the end of the line.  Some entries end with commas, as if there were more but it just couldn't all fit on the line.  Some are heart-breakingly short.  Two donors on our side were young, in their fifties.  Both died of pancreatic cancer.  Someone runs their finger down the "age" column, marveling at the youngest (53) and the oldest (101).  One of my classmates speaks as if she were an authority: "Well, it's the deadliest one.  It's the fastest."  I can tell from her voice that she has no idea, that she has never known anyone with pancreatic cancer.  I try to speak up.  "It's hard, because you don't know what it is until it's too late.  And it's fast, that's true.  But it's because you don't know until it's too late."  Too late.  The words linger on my tongue.  My classmate has no idea, is not really listening, is only thinking about what she thinks she knows about pancreatic cancer.  One of my lab partners knows.  He says "Our family friend died last year from pancreatic cancer."  His grimace is brief, a shadow that passes over his face at what cannot be understood without experience, that it takes without mercy, that there is no justice in finding out a diagnosis because it is too late.  I say nothing but suddenly I am struck by the fact that my classmates have donors who could just as easily have been Dad, that they might not even have realized yet--that their body is young, much younger than our 85 year old.  They have not yet connected these dots, the ones that would have pointed to a tragic end.  I wonder if I had seen these donors (I know I have, during the practical) when I was studying.  How often had I scrutinized their brachial plexus? or turned their arm to see the posterior arm muscles? and never paused for a moment to study the body itself, to see age or barely even register sex.  As I strip off my gloves, I am grateful the lab was short today, that I am already free to go, that I can wash my hands in the gently warm water and slip out the side door without anyone noticing.

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