Dear Unknown,

Your broken body reminded me of a renaissance sculpture of the shattered Christ. Your head fell backwards, arms limp as we moved you from the back of the police car onto our stretcher. Your face caught me off guard, you were still a boy, just borrowing a man’s body. You couldn’t have had much life left in you when you arrived, your shirt was covered in blood, your pulse fluttering, then gone. You had two small bullet holes in your tank top, right over your heart.

We rolled you back from the ambulance driveway and through the doors of the trauma bay. A makeshift vigil followed us back; security, nurses, doctors, chaplains, students, police, and medics. They stopped short, the red painted line on the floor holding them back, silent witnesses to the scene. Somewhere across the city your mother’s cell phone rang.

We moved quickly. The surgeon called for the blade, your chest was open in seconds, your heart slid between my gloved hands, quivering and empty. My hands pleaded, squeezing together, begging for your heart to join my rhythm. We did everything we could.

I’m not blaming you for not trying. You did everything you could too. Your body was so young; you gave us six strong heart beats. Our hearts stopped as yours tried to restart. We gave you more blood, we gave you more medicine, but those six beats were all that you had. While we battled to keep you from the threshold of death, your mother arrived.

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We tried for 15 more minutes, then the call went out from the surgeon: “Can anyone think of anything else?” All of our heads bowed, eye contact was broken. We had nothing left for you. He called your time of death; the crowd dissipated. In an office somewhere, your death became another statistic. But down the hall, your mother waited for you.

We cleaned your blood off our shoes; I paused to pray. We were about to shatter your mother’s world. The chaplain held her close, whispering to her that it would be okay. You left so much behind. We sat down and the words left the surgeon’s mouth, “I’m sorry to tell you, your son has died.” Then your mother’s scream, it always comes, and it always hurts. Your mother screamed for you, screamed for God, screamed for everything that you could have become. You had a scholarship, she told us. You had a life ahead of you. You had a chance. But now your mother’s scream punctuated the end of your time here.

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I knew you for 20 minutes, yet you’ll stay with me. You were another body in our trauma bay, there were two others that night, but you’re the one I still pray for. You’re the one I’ll remember and the one who will help to define my path. I’m sorry that we couldn’t save you and I’m sorry that you’re gone. We did everything we could; I hope you know that.

Rest Peacefully,

Ian

Ian McCurry is a rising fourth-year medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine and serves as an adjunct clinical chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. A version of this piece previously appeared in the April 2021 edition of Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling.