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Memento Mori- Reflecting on my Death and the Education of Medical Students

By Laura Creel

As part of their undergraduate medical education, students discuss end-of-life care; they hear lectures about valuing the lives and deaths of future patients; they are instructed in the legal issues surrounding advance directives and care planning.  They see death, too—see it in the cadavers that they incise, see it in patients who die surrounded by family members and in patients who die alone.  Sometimes these experiences with death are personal; many times the experiences are stripped of emotion because they occur in clinical environments.  But although students see death in medical school, some recent research shows that approximately half of residents do not feel well-prepared to deal with the deaths of patients.[i]

I do not see death in the way that medical students, residents, or physicians do; my experience working in medical education is limited to accreditation.  But I have long listened to Death reminding me that one day, he will take me. Memento mori, Death whispers; he will not let me forget.

I have spent half of my 28 years reeling—recovering from and sinking back into the claws of major depressive and generalized anxiety disorders.  And Death was present there.  He was present on a visceral level in a brain and body wracked by fear and sadness; one would expect him to be there.  But death is present even now, when the SSRIs and cognitive behavioral therapy have done their work.  And, I posit here, the memory of my own mortality can be a good thing.

In my own experience, the reminder of my eventual death encourages me to live with purpose.  I do not know whether students can be taught to remember that they, like their patients, will one day die.  Even if students could be taught to do this, I don’t know whether that remembrance would better prepare them to practice end-of-life care.  And I do not know whether those students would be encouraged to live with purpose, as I have, through the memory of their mortality.  All I know is that when I can see death as Homer’s “great leveler,” I am compelled to act and speak purposefully, and I am drawn into empathy for others—for students, for colleagues, for superiors.

As we move closer to winter and the festivities of a holiday-laden season, may we remember that even while signaling joy, winter also signals death.  And in this season, may the memory of our own mortality propel us to empathy for others and a greater sense of purpose in our chosen professions.

[i] Chen (Amy) Chen, Dylan Kotliar, Brian C. Drolet. (2015) Medical Education in the United States: Do Residents Feel Prepared? Perspectives on Medical Education 4:181. doi:10.1007/s40037-015-0194-8.

Laura E. Creel, MA
is a Manager of Academic Support Services at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine (HWCOM) of Florida International University (FIU)


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