Do you believe in near death experiences?

Yes, she said, with absolutely no hesitation.

I was on a walking tour in Dublin, and one of my fellow travelers was an American trauma surgeon from the East Coast. The group was small, and she and I connected right away when I asked about her hair. I’m counting the days until I can secure my hair in a carefree bun, and she had a nice one. That’s how it started, me asking how she secured her bun. For anonymity purposes, I will call her Siobhan. A good Irish name!

Whenever I make small talk with people, particularly Americans, I’ve long made it a practice to hold back on the what do you do question, preferring to wait and see if we get there organically, if at all. Our culture is so tied to work, I like making room for conversation that feels more connected to the person and not the job. Since I’ve started my adventure, I also hold back on sharing about my full-time travels, unless it comes up naturally.

It took quite a while to learn that Siobhan was an ER surgeon, and I only asked the what do you do because she’d mentioned that she was working temporarily in the U.K. and was on a much needed mini-break. I’m always interested in learning how people are able to do VISA-friendly work in another country. Only certain professions make the cut.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Siobhan was about 30 years old. She had a youthful face but the eyes of an old soul. I assume that comes from the unimaginable burden of being responsible for the lives and deaths of fellow humans.

After asking what she did, she asked about me. I shared with her that I’d quit my job, gotten rid of all my stuff and was traveling the world for a year. From that point on, there was no more talk about hair! We started excitedly asking each other questions. I think her answers were much more interesting than mine. I’d never met a trauma surgeon socially, and my curiosity was piqued.

I asked her …

How do you know when it’s time to stop? Meaning, when do you decide it’s okay to let a patient go in the ER? She said that it’s usually a consensus among the team. She added that the decision is much harder when the patient is a child or young person.

Years ago, I worked on a project at a children’s hospital, and I remember a medical staffer saying that their patients never complained. I asked Siobhan if that was her experience as well. She said, yes, children never complain, even when they’re in a lot of pain. Adults, however, complain about everything, and she wished they could see how much better the kids handle being sick.

Would she want to receive CPR? I recalled an old episode of Radio Lab that focused on a physicians’ poll. It indicated that most doctors would prefer not to receive CPR in the event of their own cardiac arrest because the survival rates are so dismal and the chance of brain/body damage so high. Siobhan said she would not want CPR, for all of those same reasons.

How do you decide when to treat an illness and when not to? What’s the tipping point? She said the question to ask is: Will you still be you? With some types of cancer, you can go through a year of hellish treatment but emerge on the other side with the same quality of life you enjoyed before getting sick. Other times, she said, medical care may extend your life, but the tradeoff is that you lose you in the process. The same thing applies in the emergency room. There’s a difference between surviving and living. She stressed the importance of doctors being willing to have honest conversations with patients and their families.

When giving people their prognoses, do they want you to tell them they’ll be the exception to the odds? Up until this point, Siobhan was very warm and conversational but still had a degree of physician’s measure to her voice’s volume and tone. But, when I asked this question, she answered YEEEESSSSSS like she was exhaling from a deep breath and releasing a heavy burden.

I really loved talking to Siobhan. Years ago, I’d read the book Complications (we talked about that too!) and felt it marked a real paradigm shift — or at least the potential for a shift — in the dynamic between doctors and patients. The author, Dr. Atul Gawande, offered a rare and humble insight into a physician’s world and demonstrated how life, health, and medicine seldom follow a nice, smooth narrative. Siobhan displayed similar humility and candor, and I appreciated that.

As the walk was coming to an end, I had one last question … the one about near death experiences.

Siobhan did not skip a beat when she answered that, yes, she did believe in them. She’d seen too many instances of people dying, then coming back and recalling the same kinds of details. 

Similar to the people hoping for pep talks from their doctor about their odds, I really wanted Siobhan to say she believed in near death experiences. I usually think of doctors as my partners in healthcare but, this time, I very willingly let her assume the role of authority figure. As I get older, I think about these kinds of things more and more, and I found her certainty comforting.

It wasn’t until we were about to part ways that we formally introduced ourselves and traded names. I wished her wonderful travels … and a wonderful life. I don’t know if Siobhan is a good doctor, but she struck me as a good person. Later, I thought of other questions I wish I’d asked, but I tend to think we get what we need when we need it.

I hope she got something she needed too.