Death of a Child

My wife, Ashley, called me in absolute hysteria. I could barely understand a word she was saying through her sobs. She was at the Children’s Hospital in Seattle with our daughter Colbie. I was at home, 4 hours away, working and taking care of our son. Ashley had just finished a conversation with a nurse who had taken care of Colbie the past few days. The conversation was short, simple, and completely unexpected.


Ashley: “Goodbye, I’ll see you when you get back.”

Nurse: “Probably not…”

Ashley: “Why? Will you be working in a different area?”

Nurse: “No, because your baby is going to die.”

My boss was aware of my situation. He knew my wife and daughter were in Seattle and that my daughter was extremely sick. When I emailed him that I needed to leave work early and go to Seattle, his only response was, “Let me know when you’ll be back, let me know what I can do. My prayers are with you.”

On my way up to Seattle I received another call from the hospital, this time from another nurse on my daughter’s floor. This nurse saw my wife’s condition, recognized the new emotional weight my wife now carried, came to her aid and started taking care of her. This nurse didn’t just take care of her patient (my daughter), she took care of her patient’s mother. She consoled Ashley, talked with her, loved on her, and set up a time for us to talk with Colbie’s physician about her long-term prognosis. Once she had calmed Ashley and gotten her to go back to her room to shower and take a breath, she called me to again apologize, answer any questions I had, report on my wife’s condition, and give me her number in case I needed her directly.

The next morning my wife and I sat in a room with Colbie’s doctor and another lady. We were informed of the extent of Colbie’s condition and we were given two options. One would prolong her life to her mid-teens at best. She would never really live though, she’d just be there, in a bed, existing.

Our other option was to remove her breathing tube and hold her as she passed away.

The doctor explained everything; he took us through all of the ins and outs of either option. He even offered to let us speak with other parents who had faced a similar choice so that we could get a better idea of what our future would be like.

He let us experience our emotions. I think we went through them all a couple times.

Once we made our decision he even, upon our request, agreed to come in on his day off and be there while we held our daughter for the last time.


Unbeknownst to us, as we were holding and saying goodbye to Colbie, he was taking pictures with his phone that he later sent to us for our personal memories.

The hospital had a box for us the next day. It had a book of pictures, a lock of hair, the blanket she was wrapped in, her booties, a teddy bear donated by a local charity that sat in her isolate with her, and a Christmas ornament with her name and hand print on it.

I tell you this because those few days summed up the previous few years of my life.

My wife has a difficult time with pregnancy. We were in and out of hospitals and doctor offices. At times her condition was beyond what could be handled in our home town and she was referred to a hospital in Seattle for inpatient treatment. Once stable, she would be referred to local physicians for continued care.

During our time we came across every personality type in medicine you can think of. We met amazing nurses and doctors who personified what it meant to serve. We interacted with nurses and doctors that made us feel like we were the worst thing to happen to them that year.

It’s why I wanted to become a doctor.

There is a difficult line that I’m learning to walk as a student doctor; one that I’m sure I’ll continue to learn until my last day as a physician: how to interact with patients.

I don’t care how many times we, as physicians, practice giving bad news, our patient will probably never be ready to hear it. It doesn’t matter how many times we treat a sick child, he’s someone’s baby boy.

I remember a conversation I had with a physician caring for my wife. I told him I understood. I got what he was doing and why he was doing it that way, but my wife didn’t. I explained to him that, due to a couple interactions with him, she thought he hated her. To his credit he went straight to her room, sat at the end of her bed and just talked with her.

We as physicians need to do everything in our power to see each of our patients for the individuals that they are.

As patients we need to see our physicians for the humans they are.

When I started medical school I still had my family that needed me. I still had my hobbies that I love doing.

I still get sad thinking about my first daughter.

I still cheer and get excited when I watch my son and youngest daughter play in their sports. I know that, as a physician, I will make mistakes. There are things I will not have an answer for. We as patients need to do all in our power to see our physicians for the individuals that they are.


As a physician it will be my privilege to serve my patient. I will strive to be attentive to not just their medical condition, but to how it plays into the bigger picture of who they are. I will give them the best care possible, even if that means transferring their care to someone else.

As a patient I will understand that my physician is just like me. I will be honest in my feedback to help them make the most informed decision possible. I will understand that they are doing their best to achieve health and wellness for all of their patients.

I think about the nurse that told my wife our daughter was going to die.

I think about the nurse who loved on my wife in her hour of need.

I think of the physician who told us to abort our son every time she saw us, because she didn’t think we were ready.

I think of the physician who gave me his personal cell phone number and email address to bypass the front desk anytime I needed anything.

I know who I am striving to be as both a physician and a patient. I know who I will encourage all my classmates to be. I hope you will help us, encourage us and support us in becoming the physicians you need by being the patients that we need.

Ryan Ostler (Square).jpg

Ryan Ostler

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd year (OMS II)
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Ryan Ostler