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The sirens were for you

BMA writing competition illustration
Illustration by Daniel Burgess

You’re not my friend, not my patient. Not even someone I know in person. The only bond we share is that you’re a fellow anaesthetic trainee.

We work in the same region but in different hospitals. It’s a big region. We’ve never met. We might have passed each other in our cars on the long commutes that trainees inevitably have to make. That’s all.

However, I know your wife, we work in the same hospital. We’ve chatted over coffee at break times every now and then. She seems kind. She’s pregnant, not too long to go. She’s shown me some of your holiday snaps. You were abroad, you looked happy but she told me you’d had to take textbooks with you, you were preparing for fellowship exams. She’d had to viva you throughout the holiday, help you practise questions for the upcoming ordeal. A doctor’s holiday.

It was an ordinary Monday morning, late last summer. A nurse was standing in front of a computer terminal, red-eyed. I could sense her shock. ‘Are you OK?’ I asked. She wasn’t OK, obviously. She told me your wife was here in the hospital, with the police and that you, your body, was here too, in the hospital mortuary. That kind of information takes a while to sink in. Time slows down as you hear it. I don’t know if I said anything.

The nurse told me that you were on your way home after a busy night shift, making that long commute. You were close to home, nearly home. Your wife knew the route you took. She knew you were almost back. And when she heard the sirens, she knew they were coming for you.

I couldn’t stop sobbing, in front of everyone, when the bad news arrived like this, all of a sudden.

Half a year later, right now, here I am, lying in the hospital accommodation on-call room. I can’t sleep. I’m thinking about you, who I’ve never met.

When I started in this hospital, the last one you worked in, I thought I was going to have to sort out somewhere to stay for the evenings between those long days that I’d spend on call. I’d already had a look on Airbnb, was looking for somewhere near the hospital, something not too expensive. Then colleagues told me that the hospital offers the on-call room now, if you need it, free of charge. It wasn’t free before, a few months ago. It is now, because of you.

Driving the endless country road to work, I often think of you. I saw a picture of the collision, your car, the lorry, on the front of the local newspaper. I think about that final moment. Then I think about your baby, who must be a few months old by now. I try to remember what you looked like but I can’t. I just had those few glimpses of your holiday snaps. I remember you looked happy together.

I need to sleep.

I am on my way home after a busy night shift. I think of you. I turn the music up very loud to keep myself awake. I try singing along. I open the window. After a few minutes driving, I feel my eyelids get heavier and heavier. It is a struggle to keep them open despite the cold morning air pouring through the open window, despite the cacophony in the car. I think of you. I stop my car in a layby and close my eyes.

Life is fragile.

We appreciate that fact so very much, working in hospitals. We see every day how fragile the lives of others are, those we care for and look after. Somehow it’s easy to forget how very fragile our own lives are too.

We try to look for good that comes from a death. Sometimes it’s impossible to find any. I think about you, your death. Perhaps you’ve made a difference to me, to others, reminded us how vulnerable we are, how instantly we can perish. Made us a little more cautious, more determined to get home safely.

I pull into the driveway, park next to the house. I turn off the music, close the window, walk round to the front door. My children are there to greet me.

I think of you. I just wish we had been given the chance to meet.

Ping Chen is a specialty trainee 6 in anaesthetics in Norfolk.

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