Bedside Lessons – 12. Zero Degrees Kelvin

Photo by Long Ma on Unsplash

Times of crisis can bring out the best or the worst in people. This is a tale from the dark side.

Before she became ill everything seemed to be perfect. Happily married to the love of her life, they were proud of their three adult children. The eldest already married and had produced the perfect grandchild. Second child a beautiful daughter who was talented, and about to enter the workforce. Youngest son, mummy’s boy, had started university and was on his way to doing something useful with his life. The family portrait was beautiful, three generations of the family all dressed in white shirts and blue denim jeans. What a beautiful family, united in their faith and religion. Stalwarts of the church, the example that the congregation all worked towards becoming. The golden family.

Illness arrived and caused major distress. The mother had always had alternative views to healthcare, had wanted naturally based treatments or no treatments at all. Unfortunately due to metastatic cancer she had to consider many different treatments, and many different medications to treat her symptoms. This soon became a torment for her, challenging her core beliefs. She tried to handle her pain as much as she could but it was so deep, so pervasive, so severe that even her iron will started to rust, to bend beyond it’s inherent structural integrity.

She was admitted in a pain crisis, having not slept for 10 days, woken by pain, exhausted with her family at their wit’s end as well. A highly distressing situation for them all. The facade of perfection had also started to crumble.

Even amongst her church congregation her views had been different to the rest of the flock. She strongly believed that she would be cured by a miracle from her god. She initially refused all treatments offered. After twenty minutes of my sales pitch she had agreed to try one dose of pain relief, and thankfully it worked well. Her family’s reaction was complex, they were glad that she was more comfortable, but there seemed to be something seething beneath the surface.

It was subtle but if you looked hard enough you would find the data points. They didn’t listen to her when she talked. Her children seemed to have important messages to check on their smartphones. At times just out of her line of sight you could see a slight upwards movement of their eyes, rolling their eyes mere millimetres and quickly covered up, it seemed to be well practised. They didn’t say anything, but it felt as if they were shouting, “Why didn’t she take the bloody medications sooner? Why did she have to put us through all of that crap?”

Her husband put on a slightly better act, at least in her room he sounded and acted supportive. Outside of the room he was happily on his phone arranging his social life, laughing, joking and looking forward to going out for lunch with whom? He had already moved on in terms of life after her death, but she wasn’t dead yet!

Things worsened, and we had to play catch up with her pain, and an overall deterioration occurred as her aggressive cancer went for broke. She accepted further changes in medication, and we were able to control her physical symptoms well. Her existential distress was amplified.

A family meeting was set up to discuss her changing situation, and to find out if her wish to go home could be fulfilled. In attendance, her most loved ones, her world. Her husband, her three children, her sister. She talked passionately about her chosen belief, that she would be cured by a miracle. She pleaded with them to join her. The first time – Please help me – Silence. The second time, looking around the room for support, but everyone avoided her gaze. The third time, she was crying, begging them for even the tiniest hint of connection, desperate for loving attention. Nobody moved, they didn’t seem to even blink. Despite the warmth of Spring outside of the room, the temperature inside was Absolute Zero.

After the meeting I debriefed with my shocked team, as we all felt chilled by what we had just witnessed. Couldn’t anyone have just pretended to support her, even for a minute? What had she done to them in the past for them to act so icily towards her.

Over the next days she deteriorated quickly, we kept her comfortable and she died peacefully. The family maintained their vigil physically, but in all other ways continued to be aloof, as they went through the motions.

When it came to completing her death certificate I pondered upon what she had died of. I wrote down metastatic cancer. But what I really thought was that she had died of a broken heart.

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