On Tuesday, March 1, 2016, I was a second-year medical student at a guest lecture on renal dialysis at Des Moines University. As I sat in the back row like usual, my brother and mom kept calling my cell phone, which I ignored while I was taking notes. My mom then sent a text message saying, “Dad went down at work. Call me ASAP.” Given my dad’s history of procedures for his heart issues throughout my life, I assumed he was taken to the hospital ER to be cardioverted, as was common for him. As soon as the lecture was over, I promptly walked out of the auditorium and called my mom. She was crying hysterically, telling me that my dad needed prayers now more than ever and that it wasn’t likely he would make it. I was so distraught, my friend, Jes, had to drive me home to meet my husband, Paul, who was also on the way home from work. At 11:10 AM, while I was still in my car, my brother called to say that the doctor had come out and told them despite their best efforts my dad had died. When I got home, I started to pack. I grabbed my only black dress, the one I had not worn since my college graduation, from the back of the closet, and Jes said, “That’s not a dress you want to be picking out.”
While my husband and I made the seven hour drive back home, I called my mom and asked that they not move my dad to the hospital morgue yet; I wanted to see him where he was. Unfortunately, by the time my husband and I made it home, he had already been moved because my mom had elected to do skin and tissue donation. I requested to see him in the morgue. I couldn’t go to bed that night without facing my cold, sad reality. I had to know it was real. A nurse escorted my mom, husband and I down to the morgue. As I looked at my dad’s body, all I could think was, I don’t have a dad anymore. I don’t have a dad anymore. I asked the nurse what his time of death was; she was kind enough to check his chart and confirm 11:10 AM exactly. For some, the fewer details they know, the better. For me, I needed to know everything surrounding his death.
The days of planning the funeral were a blur. The only thing providing me solace was knowing my dad was in the building with me and still above ground as we made his arrangements, which was a false sense of comfort since he wasn’t truly there in a spiritual sense. My school gave me five days off and then I needed to either return or take an extended leave of absence, which wouldn’t look good to residency programs come time for interviews. So, I went back to school and tried to resume a shell of a normal life.
I studied for my boards, I passed my boards, and I started my internal medicine rotation at Mercy Hospital. I followed the steps necessary to get through my day, but during rounds on my patients, my thoughts kept drifting back to my dad’s funeral and what a typical day was like for Julie Moen, our funeral director (to whom I will forever be grateful for being the last person to take care of my dad). There were many aspects of a funeral that were interesting and a mystery to me: How did they get him in the casket? What does he look like under his suit after donation? (Sadly, now I know.) How will they get the vault in the ground after we leave the cemetery? All of these unknowns were more fascinating to me than doing my presentations on rounds. If I was honest with myself, I had fallen out of love with medicine even before my dad had died. His death had made it apparent that life could be very short, and that realization became the precipice upon which I based my future career decision.
After weeks of mulling it over, I mustered the courage to call the dean and let him know I would be taking a one-year leave of absence to sort my life and aspirations out. Although I was fearful of him being angry, he was surprisingly supportive. I emailed Julie at Anderson Funeral Home to see if it would be OK for me to shadow her for a couple of weeks, explaining my thoughts of a career change to her. For two weeks, I spent every day with the funeral directors at Anderson. The first funeral I ever worked while shadowing Julie was for Monty Hevern, and I saw it through from pick-up to finish. At the end of the service, Monty’s wife, Jennie, handed me a packet of forget-me-not seeds to plant, hugged me, and told me how grateful she was for everything we had done for her (despite me being greener than green and probably not having done much of anything). No one in my medical career had ever made me feel the way Jennie Hevern did, and in that moment, I felt like I knew what I was supposed to do with my life.
I have had many people question why I gave up a career as a physician to be “just” a funeral director. They often cite the difference in pay and foregoing a six-figure salary, as if that’s the most important part. For me, it is about fulfilling my purpose in life. I had such a positive experience with the funeral home, and I feel it is my purpose and duty to give that opportunity to others in their time of need. Because of the perspective I have from losing my dad, I am able to meet families in their grief and truly empathize with their loss, especially if that loss is a young parent. My dad’s death has changed a lot about me, but because of it, I wake up in the morning and love what I do. And that is worth its weight in gold.