Life and Death in the ER: What's Real, What's Fiction? by Carol Scott Connor

   Carol Scott-Conner is Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Her story  "After Midnight"  is homage to the night shift, when everything extraneous seems to fade away and only life and death remain.

Carol Scott-Conner is Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. Her story "After Midnight" is homage to the night shift, when everything extraneous seems to fade away and only life and death remain.

Readers of my piece "After Midnight" often ask me, “What happened to the cop?”

I answer, “It’s fiction. There never was any cop.” But the truth is more complex than that.

There were patients very similar to this during my medical school and residency years. From those memories I can say with confidence that although the piece ends with the cop about to arrive, alive, in the Recovery room, he almost certainly would not have survived to leave the hospital. As subsequent decades passed, we became more facile in resuscitation, better attuned to the factors that predict a successful outcome. In that time, at that place, we simply did everything we could to fight for life.

As you may have guessed, the piece is firmly rooted in my own experience as a wide-eyed medical student. Originally destined for a career in the cerebral specialty of cardiology, I became a convert to surgery after a night when the team (at least temporarily) cheated death and everything seemed possible. When the swoosh of the dark wings of death could be heard, and we seemed to be able to beat that old carrion-bird back into the darkness. And the night ended with a trip across the roof to start rounds.

A far more realistic and nuanced view is presented by Anna Belc in “Getting to Know Dying.” She writes of the early recognition of imminent death in those who are in the zone of criticality. She speaks of anticipating death so as to better be able to prevent it – for example, for a patient at risk of bleeding out, start two large-bore IV’s.

She also speaks of the difficulty preparing the survivors, the family. And, implicit in all of this, is the personal toll on the healthcare team. Those who deliberately choose to work in the zone where life and death intersect are, indeed, very special people.


Carol Scott-Conner is Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. She writes memoir in the form of fiction, exploring the world of women in surgery. Her stories have been published in multiple literary journals ranging from “The Healing Muse” through “North Dakota Quarterly,” and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A collection of her short stories was published as “A Few Small Moments.” She is past editor-in-chief of “The Examined Life Journal: A Literary Journal of the Carver College of Medicine” and currently serves as its fiction editor. "After Midnight" is homage to the night shift, when everything extraneous seems to fade away and only life and death remain.