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What Dealing With Death on a Daily Basis Has Taught Me

Published:
December 14, 2023
April 10, 2023
Being in pathology residency has taught this author many lessons about life.|Being in pathology residency has taught this author many lessons about life.

It was a regular weekend in Los Angeles. 

The coffee shop was buzzing with people — tourists with backpacks, locals sweaty from morning workouts, shoppers waiting for pre-Rodeo fuel. We were standing there with our iced drinks in the zillenial weekend uniform of athleisure and sunglasses, the bright LA sun cutting through the crisp morning air to beam warmly on our faces.

I had met some new friends for a morning walk that Saturday around the neighborhood. LA is never really quiet, but there was a lightness and a slowness that is so distinctive of a Saturday morning. As if the earth was taking its time waking up, watching the green of the palm trees brush the cerulean ceiling before drinking its last few sips of coffee, finishing the paper, and moving on with the rest of its day. A beautiful day to be alive and outside.

And then, it came.

“You must see death differently than most people,” my friend said.

This happens frequently when meeting new people.

We were, as one does in Los Angeles, discussing aging. The conversation had moved from the sun to sunscreen to skincare to prevention of aging to embracing aging. My friend’s comment was unsurprising — when I tell people what I do, there is always a bit of shock, or more specifically, curiosity. If I wasn’t a pathology resident, how many people would I know that do autopsies? I would have so many questions about me if I wasn’t me.

Even though, quite frankly, I’m not all that interesting.

I sipped my matcha, noticing the light green foam cling to the ice cubes while tilting the biodegradable plastic cup to my lips.

She was right — seeing death and disease on a daily basis, it changes your perspective. 

I am currently in the midst of my residency training in pathology. It’s a unique area of medicine. All areas of medicine deal somewhat with death and disease, but few deal with death in such a way as pathology does. 

Pathology is death and disease. Our job is to find it, to look at it, to examine it. We deal with mortality on more of an hourly basis than a weekly or daily basis, regardless of subspecialty.

I’ve seen people die of things both young and old, expected and unexpected. Each one feels like a life gone too soon. In preparing and reading the medical chart, it almost feels like I’ve met the patient. I know their likes, their dislikes, their plans for the future. Plans they no longer have. And seeing that has changed my perspective on life here. Mainly that, in my sheer mortality, I have absolutely no control over time.

Each minute we are gifted is so incredibly precious. Each one of us has no idea exactly how many minutes we have. We only ride the Earth around the sun for so many days.

I have no idea how much time I’ve been gifted. No one does. There are plans I have that I may never get to realize. There are places I want to see and things I want to do and goals I want to achieve that may never happen depending on how much time I have.

And I have control over none of that.

But what I can control, in my own little mortal way, is how I take in the minutes I have. How I choose to spend my time, and who I choose to spend my time with. And I can align those choices in such a way, that when it’s time for me to leave, I’ve filled my life with meaning and joy to my best capability.

So, if I’ve learned anything from doing autopsies, it’s to enjoy even the tiny moments. Like how pretty an iced matcha is in the light of the sun outside a busy coffee shop.

The little things add up to be your life.

Creators:
Alexandria Wellman
Published:
December 14, 2023
April 10, 2023
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