English is not a useless college degree.
Intellectually I always knew this, but I learned the truth of it this past summer in an Emergency Room while I was at the bedside of a patient who died.
Having read great literature helped me process and understand what had happened -- and how to manage the mental and emotional trauma of it.
I was at the patient's bedside because I am a pre-med English major who doesn't want to wait until medical school to help those in need. I enrolled in an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Basic course, a required component of which is to log at least 36 hours in ride-along ambulances and in hospital emergency room rotations.
On my very first ER rotation, early in the morning, barely an hour after I reported to work, an ambulance with sirens on came into the hospital bay. The EMTs wheeled in an elderly man in distress. His wife walked alongside the bed. They talked softly to each other. They held hands.
The ambulance crew brought the patient into a large room and the attending doctor, the nurses and the EMTs in training quickly followed. As the medical team hooked the patient up to the various machines to record his vital signs, he became progressively worse. He remained awake, but his awareness of his surroundings dimmed. He went unconscious.
His wife sat a short distance away from the foot of his bed, maybe ten feet or so. The machines traced her husband's story. The moment came. The doctor called for CPR, and at two-minute intervals the nurses and two of us EMTs in training all took rotations trying to resuscitate him.
I had learned in our EMT course how difficult it is to do CPR: the mechanics of it are not difficult by themselves, and the timing becomes familiar after just a bit of practice, but actually preforming CPR is exhausting -- so much so that protocols suggest that if multiple people are available they should switch off every two minutes. If one attempts to continue longer than that at a stretch, the chest compressions are likely to become less regular or the pushes less deep than the two inches recommended and so the intervention becomes less effective.
I had only ever done CPR on a dummy and doing it on a real person was a stark contrast. I felt the patient's warmth through my gloves. I thought I could feel his ribs creak and crack. He seemed fragile, unbearably mortal. I flashed on the words of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy -- perhaps the one passage that all English majors' commit to memory. Was this to end in the "sleep of death"?
As the minutes ticked by, the doctors and nurses around the patient repeatedly shared knowing looks. The patient was not responding. I couldn't tell from my medical knowledge whether he would survive, but I could read the doctors' and nurses' reactions. They knew it was over.
When someone dies, literature can explain what happens -- more memorably, more compellingly and even, sometimes, more truthfully than my EMT and pre-med textbooks do. The best stories give readers insights into human frailty, and reading them shows the readers, in their turn, how to be more humane.
In the Emergency Room, the elderly man's wife sat and watched. With her as audience, the attending doctor did everything that could be done, and more. He called for us to carry on the CPR for over half an hour. Finally he called for the chaplain, who came into the room and took the wife out. After she left, the doctor called the time of death.
It was then that I understood why doctors should be English majors -- or at least readers of great literature. Good doctors not only take care of their dying patients, they consider the survivors. They consider what they can do, in good conscience and using good medical practices, for both those dying and those surviving.
Afterwards, in a staff meeting of those who had been in the room, the attending doctor told us that the extraordinary efforts of the team had given the patient a chance.
The doctor also told us that our work had helped the wife. He saw that the patient's death had depressed the morale and psyche of those who had worked to save the patient. As the book of Job says (as I read in my Biblical Literature class): "But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged; it strikes you, and you are dismayed." (Job 4: 5) The attending doctor told us that although the wife had not understood all that she had witnessed in those last minutes of her husband's life, she did understand that the hospital team had tried all that it could.
The rest of my 10-hour shift, I thought on this. I thought about whether I would be a good doctor -- responsive to my patients, thoughtful about their families. As an English major I've learned to become a critical thinker -- to look beyond what's obvious, and consider all that matters. I found comfort in recognizing that being a liberal arts major, that loving good books, was going to be a great preparation for going into medicine.