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Matthew O'Reilly: “Am I dying?” The honest answer.

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Views 1,955,318

Matthew O’Reilly is a veteran emergency medical technician on Long Island, New York. In this talk, O’Reilly describes what happens next when a gravely hurt patient asks him: “Am I going to die?”

- Emergency medical technician
Matthew O’Reilly is a veteran emergency medical technician on Long Island, New York. Full bio

I've been a critical care EMT for the past
seven years in Suffolk County, New York.
00:12
I've been a first responder in a number of incidents
00:16
ranging from car accidents to Hurricane Sandy.
00:18
If you are like most people, death might be
00:21
one of your greatest fears.
00:23
Some of us will see it coming.
00:25
Some of us won't.
00:26
There is a little-known documented medical term
00:28
called impending doom.
00:30
It's almost a symptom.
00:32
As a medical provider, I'm trained to respond
00:34
to this symptom like any other,
00:35
so when a patient having a heart attack looks at me
00:37
and says, "I'm going to die today,"
00:39
we are trained to reevaluate the patient's condition.
00:41
Throughout my career, I have responded
00:45
to a number of incidents where the patient
00:47
had minutes left to live
00:49
and there was nothing I could do for them.
00:50
With this, I was faced with a dilemma:
00:54
Do I tell the dying that they are about to face death,
00:56
or do I lie to them to comfort them?
01:00
Early in my career, I faced this dilemma
01:03
by simply lying.
01:05
I was afraid.
01:07
I was afraid if I told them the truth,
01:09
that they would die in terror, in fear,
01:11
just grasping for those last moments of life.
01:14
That all changed with one incident.
01:18
Five years ago, I responded to a motorcycle accident.
01:20
The rider had suffered critical, critical injuries.
01:23
As I assessed him, I realized that there was nothing
01:26
that could be done for him,
01:29
and like so many other cases,
he looked me in the eye
01:31
and asked that question: "Am I going to die?"
01:34
In that moment, I decided to do something different.
01:39
I decided to tell him the truth.
01:42
I decided to tell him that he was going to die
01:45
and that there was nothing I could do for him.
01:48
His reaction shocked me to this day.
01:51
He simply laid back and had a look
01:55
of acceptance on his face.
01:57
He was not met with that terror or fear
01:59
that I thought he would be.
02:01
He simply laid there, and as I looked into his eyes,
02:04
I saw inner peace and acceptance.
02:07
From that moment forward, I decided
02:09
it was not my place to comfort the dying with my lies.
02:11
Having responded to many cases since then
02:16
where patients were in their last moments
02:19
and there was nothing I could do for them,
02:21
in almost every case,
02:23
they have all had the same reaction to the truth,
02:25
of inner peace and acceptance.
02:28
In fact, there are three patterns
02:30
I have observed in all these cases.
02:32
The first pattern always kind of shocked me.
02:37
Regardless of religious belief or cultural background,
02:40
there's a need for forgiveness.
02:44
Whether they call it sin
02:47
or they simply say they have a regret,
02:49
their guilt is universal.
02:52
I had once cared for an elderly gentleman
02:54
who was having a massive heart attack.
02:55
As I prepared myself and my equipment
02:58
for his imminent cardiac arrest,
03:00
I began to tell the patient of his imminent demise.
03:03
He already knew by my tone
of voice and body language.
03:07
As I placed the defibrillator pads on his chest,
03:10
prepping for what was going to happen,
03:13
he looked me in the eye and said,
03:15
"I wish I had spent more time with
my children and grandchildren
03:17
instead of being selfish with my time."
03:20
Faced with imminent death,
03:23
all he wanted was forgiveness.
03:25
The second pattern I observe
03:28
is the need for remembrance.
03:30
Whether it was to be remembered in my thoughts
03:33
or their loved ones', they needed to feel
03:35
that they would be living on.
03:37
There's a need for immortality
03:39
within the hearts and thoughts of their loved ones,
03:41
myself, my crew, or anyone around.
03:44
Countless times, I have had a
patient look me in the eyes
03:47
and say, "Will you remember me?"
03:50
The final pattern I observe
03:54
always touched me the deepest, to the soul.
03:56
The dying need to know that their life had meaning.
03:59
They need to know that they did not waste their life
04:03
on meaningless tasks.
04:06
This came to me very, very early in my career.
04:09
I had responded to a call.
04:12
There was a female in her late 50s
04:14
severely pinned within a vehicle.
04:16
She had been t-boned at a high rate of speed,
04:18
critical, critical condition.
04:22
As the fire department worked
to remove her from the car,
04:24
I climbed in to begin to render care.
04:26
As we talked, she had said to me,
04:29
"There was so much more
I wanted to do with my life."
04:32
She had felt she had not left her mark on this Earth.
04:35
As we talked further, it would turn out
04:39
that she was a mother of two adopted children
04:41
who were both on their way to medical school.
04:44
Because of her, two children
04:47
had a chance they never would have had otherwise
04:49
and would go on to save lives in the medical field
04:52
as medical doctors.
04:54
It would end up taking 45 minutes
04:56
to free her from the vehicle.
04:58
However, she perished prior to freeing her.
05:00
I believed what you saw in the movies:
05:04
when you're in those last moments
05:06
that it's strictly terror, fear.
05:07
I have come to realize,
regardless of the circumstance,
05:10
it's generally met with peace and acceptance,
05:13
that it's the littlest things, the littlest moments,
05:16
the littlest things you brought into the world
05:20
that give you peace in those final moments.
05:23
Thank you.
05:26
(Applause)
05:28

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About the speaker:

Matthew O'Reilly - Emergency medical technician
Matthew O’Reilly is a veteran emergency medical technician on Long Island, New York.

Why you should listen

 When first responders are honest with the gravely injured, what happens? Watch this short, moving talk to find out.

More profile about the speaker
Matthew O'Reilly | Speaker | TED.com