Administration and Leadership, News, Patient Care

Providers Recognize Patients in Obituaries

Issue 2 and Volume 36.

“Why do you always do that?” my partner Tom irritatingly asks as I hand him the daily classifieds—his ritual.

“Do what?” I blurt back, mid-bite through a Boston cream doughnut.

“That. That right there,” he says, pointing to a section of the newspaper that’s part of my own morning routine—now inadvertently smudging the ink with cream filling.

“It’s just not right,” he moans as he flicks open the last fold of his classifieds section to emphasize his annoyance with me, creating a paper blockade between our seats.

Puzzled by this unsolicited provocation, I decide to starve him out by eating his share of the Boston creams until he elaborates on his discontent with me. By the fourth doughnut, I defeat him.

Tom slowly lowers the upper lip of his paper at a point just below his right eye and says, “Who reads the obituary segment of a newspaper right off the bat?”

“What’s wrong with that?” I counter, licking my fingers.

Crumbling his paper down to his lap, he says, “It’s kind of a morbid way to start the day, doncha think?”

“I guess that all depends on one’s perspective, now doesn’t it?” I reply, giving the obit page a little shake for emphasis. “Reading the obituaries reminds me of my own mortality and to not waste the time I’m given,” I add.

Tom mockingly inquires, “Is this a Hallmark card moment? Doesn’t the profession of EMS already remind you enough to make each day count?”

“Not as much as it should I suppose,” I reply between licks, asking him if he ever reads the obits.

“Oh, I suppose I glance at them every once in a while to see if a patient I cared for survived,” he says.

“Well,” I say, flicking a piece of dough off his collar, “Seeing as you’re an avid reader of the classifieds section, and from what I’ve seen of your medicine, may I suggest you start cutting out the obituaries from the newspapers on a daily basis? You’d compile quite a list of past patients.”

I’m not trying to be irreverent here—quite the opposite. I read the obituaries out of respect for the ordinary man. I’ve made a habit of searching for life’s lessons from the rank and file members of society, which have literally taken them a lifetime to learn.

It’s not easy to do when one’s autobiography is reduced to 300 words or less. How do you funnel all those footprints left behind into a 3″ x 5″ summary?

The Pew Research Center for the People and Press estimates that as little as 5% of young people ever bother reading the obituaries, while 80% of folks over the age of 65 read them on a regular basis. C’mon, admit it. How many of you out there scan the obituaries for the age of the deceased and then try to find the cause of death to see if it was odd or interesting? I thought so. You’re as sick as I am!

Occasionally, I’ll see the face of an elderly patient I’ve transported, sometimes routinely. If I have truly done my job as a good medic, I’ll already know their story—their sacrifices during the big war, their legacy of love to their families and friends, their noble social accomplishments and more importantly, their Medicaid/Medicare number … Did I just ruin a good moment there? Seriously though, this is an important privilege very few people have.

Were you ever given the classic high school English class assignment of writing your own obituary? Well, I’ve been thinking of writing a new one to spare my family the anguish of ever having to put one together in a hasty fashion should that day ever happen. (Notice I said should. Denial is a beautiful thing.)

Besides, why shouldn’t I write my own and make myself sound better than I was? This would be my only chance to truly have the last word.

It’s a “no brainer” that I would add some humor to my obituary, despite the solemnity of the event. I envision some unsuspecting soul out there scanning the obits like I used to do, suddenly choking on a Boston cream doughnut when reading of my request for the hearse driver to take advantage of the carpool lane while I’m on board.

The bottom line, folks, is that no matter how high we may think we are in the hierarchy of business and privilege, everyone eventually ends up at the same level in the end: supine and six feet under to be exact. So treat everyone as your equal, because if you read enough obituaries, you’re bound to realize there really are no ordinary lives. JEMS

This article originally appeared in February 2010 JEMS as “Obits to Die for: How would yours read?”.