Life & Death on a Slide

I once worked in a hospital, in the clinical lab. It is filled with parts of people.

Drops of their blood, samples of their bodies, and numbers to their names. There are never any faces.

But once I was lucky enough to get a story that came from a slide of blood and while it is interesting I am sorry to say it was a sad one…

The lab in a hospital is a bit like the kitchen in a restaurant; you never see it, you never really think about it, and people usually only interact with it when they want to complain to the chef! But it is there, and it buzzes and hums in the background every hour of every day. And like most aspects and workers of a hospital, the work that so often saves lives goes silently unnoticed.

But hospitals aren’t just about life, so too they are a place of death. And this is a story about one death in particular.

When I was being educated as a scientist, I was trained on Blood Films, which is pretty standard. No, Blood Films aren’t some sort of weird niche movie, or to be confused with Blood Sport starring Jean-Claude van Damme, one of the most romantic films of all time. A Blood Film is a thin smear of blood on a glass slide so that it can be viewed microscopically for examination. Naturally, the lab maintains a stock of Blood Films for training purposes; standard cases, unusual cases…all sorts.

One such slide contained the blood of a lady in her fifties. The case was unusual in a haematology department because the cause of her illness was not her blood, but what was growing inside it. At the time the Blood Film was generated, in very small concentrations, grew Staphylococcus, a common bacteria of the skin, but deadly in the blood. The woman was being treated for something completely different and had some how picked a bacteraemia, which fast became a septicemia, and she died from a blood infection. The lesson that the Blood Film was to teach was that you always need to be observant, because the thing that gets you in the end is seldom the thing you see coming. It’s good advice for life too I guess, but since when has good advice ever been useful, right?

But this slide stuck with me. The date on the glass was years and years old. That woman was dead and buried long before I had even left school.

But she was a woman, she was someone. Being in her fifties, she was probably a mother, a wife, a colleague, someone that loved and was loved in return. It made me think about how we interact with people that we may not know so well, we so often forget that they are just that: people with lives and families. And there was always a quiet beauty, a unique sadness about the fact that even though this stranger on the slide was dead, she wasn’t totally gone. It was the first time the lab seemed human to me.

Being a scientist at heart, I have no belief in an after life; sure it would be nice, but I don’t think it’s there. So we have to make do with whatever faith can abide by the test tubes. And even though that woman is gone, save for a few photos and memories, somewhere, in a lab in Ireland, in the back of a light-blue press there is some remnant of who she was. All the physical information about who that life was is preserved in glass and DNA, a part of her frozen in time just hours before she was no more. Her name, the fact she was here and a lesson for others.

But someday, it too will be put in the bin. There is a strange melancholy to the woman I never met. At the very least, I for one appreciate the story and lesson learned; that time is fleeting and nothing, not even something preserved, is forever.

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