we are but mortals


You clutched at the edges of your white coat, creating creases in the once well-ironed piece of clothing.

You fidgeted in discomfort on the green plastic chair beside the cot. You could not bear to look at the frail, cachectic lady choking on her sobs.

Wisps of her silver hair were plastered to her face, drenched in her tears. She hammered weakly at her unmoving legs, and stared at you with the desperate gaze of a lost soul. 

You tried to comfort her, but all that could tumble out of your mouth were weak phrases that do not mean a thing to her. Clumsily, you attempted dabbing at her tears with a tissue hastily grabbed from the bedside. 

Why was it that your eyes sting too? Perhaps it was the dry air in the air-conditioned ward. Maybe it was the glaringly bright lights shining down from the ceiling. Or the smell of the alcoholic disinfectant.

How do you comfort someone who already knows that she has terminal cancer? If she asks you about her condition, you do not lie. Neither do you reveal anything as a medical student. Even if you had read her case notes and known of her poor prognosis, you say nothing about it. You don't have to add on to her despair. You don't have to remind her of time that is rapidly ticking by. 

Eventually, you ask about her last wishes. No, not that bluntly. You phrase it in a more eloquent way. Grasping her wasted hands, you promise her that you will convey her wishes to her palliative care team. 

The shroud of despair in the ward was becoming too suffocating. With one last glance at her, who had then regained her composure, you hurriedly walked out of the ward.

On the train home, her words echoed in your mind, "I am terrified. I fear for the day when I close my eyes, never to open them again. Everyday, I witness the clock hands move. How many more cycles of that can I see?"

Death is a painful truth, but truth, nonetheless. 

Palliative Medicine simply puts things back into perspective. 

We are but mortals. 

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