Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Defining dead

Arya Shah
Rochester, MN, USA


Park Point Trail

The checklist of death was foreign to me
when I first ran down its list.
It’s hard to describe that encounter with death,
but let’s see if I can convey the gist.

It started on a bright summer morning.
A boy woke up for a day of fun.
He planned to go on a hike with his friends,
Unaware it would be his last one.

They drove to the east. They charged at the sun.
They arrived at the edge of a trail.
They hefted their bags, ready to hike,
and set forth with him at the tail.

His legs they marched. His skin was drenched.
His 18 year old heart beat fast.
His heart, born broken, was fixed at age 10.
The time for fear was thought passed.

Then he felt the ground grow uneven below him.
He felt the earth and his body colide.
His arm hit first. His head came next.
He found himself sprawled on the hillside.

He picked himself up. Friends offered concern.
They decided to cut short the journey.
So he headed home, with nothing to show
save for a cut on his leg.
It was burning.

It burned through the night, and when he woke up
he felt sick in every fiber of his being.
With body on fire, he drove to the hospital,
not knowing he’d never be leaving.

It was 24 hours before he would die,
though I didn’t know it from the start.
Soon a thousand shrapnel emboli
would be shot from his now infected heart.

They shot to his spleen. They shot to his kidney.
They shot to his 18 year old brain.
His family in the hallway, crying, praying
and I only able to watch them in pain.

It all started with a heart never totally whole,
so vulnerable to even the smallest of hits,
a heart that snuck sickness throughout the body,
an invader he couldn’t outwit.
By the next afternoon there was nothing to be done
but to run through the checklist of death.
Then we brought in his parents to perform the task
of timing his very last breath.

That day, I learned the dead weren’t old.
The dead could be young
like me.
They were like my brother. They were like my friends.
They were exactly what I’d one day be.

Such a grim definition of dead
makes the end seem so near.
Given the universal truth of mortality
should we be doomed to live in fear?

Each day we wake up and face the same choice the boy did,
Between hiking and inaction,
Between thriving and surviving,
Between living and life protraction.

What I learned that day was that
a life of risk avoidance, of fear of unknown,
leads to an existence so deficient.
I chose instead the same life he chose
because, in the end,
survival is insufficient.



ARYA SHAH is a 4th year medical student at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. She hopes to pursue a career in Psychiatry and to continue to keep herself healthy and whole through her writing and art.


Summer 2017  |  Sections  |  Poetry

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