It was after 10 p.m. The hall lights were dimmed, and the building had that midnight peacefulness that I usually enjoyed in hospitals. But in this remote corner of the hospital, on this particular night, the darkness was intimidating.
For the next four hours we did our job: we attended to Brianna’s needs. We administered sedation to ease her breathing and morphine to relieve her pain. And when we could do no more, we stood outside the room and simply bore witness.
When the nurse checked in the room and returned to say she thought Brianna had stopped breathing, my attending said that I should go and pronounce her dead. Her mother knew me and seemed to trust me. But I had never done this before, and I didn’t know what to expect.
I quietly entered the room and whispered that I need to examine Brianna one last time, and then I performed our ritual: I placed my stethoscope on her chest and listed for a full 60 seconds for the absence of a heartbeat and breathing. I noted the time of death. I told her mother that I that I was so sorry for her loss.
And then, as I was preparing to leave, I stopped and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
She thought for a minute and then said, simply, “Could you pray with me?”
I paused, because I’m a lapsed Jew from New Jersey. I don’t pray. I don’t believe in God. And the death of a child seemed so unjust that pretending to pray seemed the absolute wrong thing to do. But in that moment, it dawned on me: This was not about my feelings of discomfort. Brianna’s mother saw me as her doctor—the one she needed. The type of doctor I had always hoped to be.
So there, in a dark room lit by a silent bank of monitors, I had my one truly beautiful moment in medicine. When a stranger took my hands in hers, and the two of us stood over the body of her daughter, when I closed my eyes with her. And when she spoke, words I had heard only a few times before came forth from me too: “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven …”
Editor’s note: The name of the patient has been changed to preserve privacy.
Samuel Blackman, MD, PhD, is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist in Seattle, Wash., who also works in biotechnology on early-stage development of new cancer therapeutics as head of clinical development for Silverback Therapeutics.
Blackman says his decision to go into medicine stemmed from his undergraduate philosophy studies. “After thinking about medicine from the perspective of ethics and justice, I realized that I also loved the art and the science of medicine and the idea of being a physician,” he says.
As a physician, Blackman loves that patients often feel inclined to freely share the most private details of their lives with him. “In a world that increasingly lacks authenticity, there remains something profoundly important about the connection between a doctor and patient,” he says.
That’s especially the case as a pediatrician, when parents put their sick child in your hands for care, adds Blackman.
“As a parent, I now realize how remarkable that human transaction is, and how precious that trust is,” he says.
Outside of medicine, Blackman is an avid baker of bread as well as a performer at The Moth, a competitive storytelling forum held in and around Seattle. He just completed “The Laidlaw Trilogy” of novels by Scottish author William MacIlvaney and now reading “Inherited Disorders” by Adam Ehrlich Sachs.