Palace of Care – The Deluge

Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash

It had already been one of the wettest summers in years. Grey skies outnumbered blue skies by many times. There was no risk of the grass turning yellow this summer. The weeds were having a good time with flowers abundant. Hayfever victims spent a lot of money on tissue paper this season as pollen was often in the air between bouts of rain. Allergic coughs could be heard amongst the populace with many people swearing it wasn’t COVID. “My eyes are itchy as well!”

The forecasts had warned of heavy rainstorms a number of times in the past month. This had led to severe flooding in a lot of areas around the country. Residents hadn’t completed the clean-up from the previous storms before the new ones battered them again. It had gotten so bad that locals stopped wearing business suits and wore wetsuits instead. The gumboot and raincoat store celebrated record sales.

The big city had been prepared for the cyclone to hit, but it had decided to wreak havoc elsewhere. It had gotten off lightly. The sun came out and everyone let their guard down. When the meteorological prophets warned of heavy rainstorms people heard “wolf,” cried too many times and didn’t pay much attention. Though they had been warned to expect the deterioration in the next hours to days. People were still surprised when the downpour started.

Light rain turned to heavy rain within minutes. The noise of the precipitation became louder on the rooftops. Water started to seep in through the gaps under the doors. Water streamed down the walls, and leaked from ceilings. Water, water everywhere but not a drop clean enough to drink. Supermarkets became swimming pools, local parks became lakes and buses became submarines. The power of nature had made its presence felt.

A family farewelled their loved one for the last time.

I think therefore I am? – A Long Time Between Goodbyes

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Before I left for my holiday I turned on the automatic replies. Correspondents needed to know that I would be away on leave for a fortnight. Not a long break but enough to recharge and unwind. It takes at least a week to really start relaxing. In the past, I had been used to pushing hard and living on adrenaline that if I relaxed too deeply my immune system would crash and I’d catch a cold. These days I make sure I have something to do each day, a task of some sort that needs to be done. Nothing too stressful but something to keep me from relaxing completely. The tightrope balancing act of modern-day life. Rest but not too much too fast.

It had been a while since I’d been on leave. Also been a while since I’ve had to say goodbye to patients that I thought I wouldn’t ever see again. People who I thought would no longer be alive by the time I returned. Some of them I’d only just met in the last few weeks, others I had known for many months. Some of the recipients knew what I meant without me having to say anything more. Others had different ideas about their situation and believed they would still be alive to see in the New Year 2024, let alone the current one. I also said goodbye to the patients’ family members as well.

Goodbyes in palliative care are usually final. Most of the time you will never see the patient or their family members ever again. In fact, each interaction you have with people you deal with may be the very last time you see them. You have to make sure you don’t leave things in a bad way, as you may never get the chance to sort things out. You don’t want what may be one of the final interactions for the other human being to be a poor one.

Palace of Care – True Flies

Photo by Dieter Pelz on Unsplash

Every summer the hospice is visited by thousands of flies.

We are situated next to a big park and flies are a constant presence in the warmer months.

They can be really annoying for our patients who may be too weak and tired to fend them off. Their family members may also have troubled keeping the flies away.

Every summer I have said that I would bring in an electric bug-zapping racquet to deal with the flies.

This summer I finally brought one in.

In recent weeks as well as doing a medical round I also do a fly-catching ward round at least once a day.

I made myself available 24/7 on-call for the purpose of catching pesky flies. I can be called in any time of the day or night.

This has led to great amusement for patients, family and staff members.

Yes, I am probably the most highly qualified pest control worker in the country.

As well as catching flies I practise some medicine as well.

I clear each room of flies and then I head outside to the balcony area and get rid of the ones that are out there as well.

It’s one man against thousands of flies but if it makes my patients’ time slightly more bearable it is worth it.

It is also a good way to add to my daily step counts.

I will continue to catch flies and expand my repertoire of work roles.

This is especially important each and every Flyday.

I think therefore I am? – Chinese New Year Family Photos

Photo by Сергей Wi on Unsplash

Chinese New Year is a time for family to gather. People make their way home from all over the world for a chance to catch up with each other. It’s a time for the annual family photo, making the most of the opportunity when everyone is there together. A rare occasion these days to have the children and the grandchildren altogether in one place at one time.

Looking back the old photos tell a story of a family’s life together. Over the years the pictures change. The parents get older. The children grow up and become parents themselves. The next generation is welcomed. The family dog looks less and less alert. The first grandchild is joined by another. A few photos later and there are more babies. The family dog disappears from the photos. The children look more tired and world-weary. The grandchildren look taller in each new photo.

The photos of the past three years looked different as many families could not gather for their annual reunion. Replaced by screenshots of virtual gatherings. Better than not seeing each other at all, but not quite the same due to lag and other factors. Not being able to taste Grandmas’s signature dish, her stir-fried rice vermicelli. Not being able to eat New Year Cakes together. No red packets could exchange hands.

As time goes by the photos will change even more. The grandparents start to look elderly. The parents start to have grey hair. The young ones may not be able to make it back due to university or work commitments. The eldest grandson proudly presents his grandparents with the first red packet he earned himself in his first year of working. Pure pride beams in the smile of his grandmother as she receives the auspicious gift.

People start to disappear from the photos as health issues start to wreak their havoc. One of the grandparent’s faces looks different after the stroke. The following year there is a gap in the space where one of the parents always stood. Two of the grandchildren will have to finish growing up without one of their parents.

The family tradition will persist. The gathering, the family meal, followed by the family photo. The life changes will continue to occur and will be writ on the faces of those photographed. The ups and downs of the year. The challenges encountered, the successes and failures. What we have gained and what we have lost all feature in these family photos.

1,2,3 everyone say, “Cheese.”

Palace of Care – Second Languages

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

They had lived in New Zealand for many years and could speak English as their third language. Their English was pretty good but they did not feel confident when discussing medical issues with healthcare staff. Their children had grown up here but were busy with work. One child worked in NZ, the other child was overseas. Thanks to time zone differences, their overseas child would sometimes be available to help with translation during our patient’s clinic appointments. The patient and their spouse didn’t want to risk any misunderstandings when it came to discussing medications and treatment plans.

We had offered them a virtual appointment but they wanted to come in person. Face to face it was easier to communicate even with masks on. I greeted them in our shared second language, Mandarin Chinese. This made them feel at ease right away. They felt they would be able to communicate better with me. They had come for a pain review and I was able to quickly assess our patient. Our patient would be seeing their Oncologist the next day. I provided them with written instructions and also wrote a note to the Oncologist asking them for advice about another problem they had mentioned to me.

The communication was by no means perfect as my Mandarin is not 100% fluent, especially when talking about medical issues. I had to use occasional English words interspersed between paragraphs of Mandarin but we were able to understand each other well in terms of language and also cultural expectations. They were pleased to meet our pharmacist who could also speak Mandarin.

It felt good that our diversity and inclusion recruitment programme was making a difference. Our effort to reflect our demographic continues to be beneficial and is another patient-centric point of difference in the services we provide. We are doing better than before and will continue to keep trying to make our ability to connect better.

I think therefore I am? – On Adaptation

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Humans can adapt to many different situations. It may take a few days to acclimate to the weather at your trip’s destination, but you get used to the new situation. Physiological adaptation occurs with the senses. If you hear a repeated sound your brain will adapt to it and will start to filter it out. You will start to notice it less and that allows you to notice other sounds. The same occurs when you encounter pungent aromas, after a short period of time the smell will be less noticeable. Something similar occurs when you expose yourself to differences in temperature, e.g. sauna or ice bath.

This adaptation process will work to a certain extent and depends on your body’s coping ability. If your body is compromised in any way then your ability to adapt will be affected. Serious illnesses can lead to an inability to handle these situations. There is a limit to what you can cope with. This might be changed with training. Repeated exposure to the stimulus will lead to changes in the body and mind.

Adaptation and coping are not purely physical and the mind has a big part to play. I have looked after many people who have survived for much longer than I thought would be possible. I have often remarked that they are kept alive by sheer force of willpower. A strong mind will sustain a physical body much longer than expected. People with strong beliefs or reasons to stay alive may also outlive their prognoses.

This inner strength lies somewhere deep inside the individual and their determination may have resulted in many successes in the past. These people might be described as stubborn, and like most personality traits people will stay true to themselves right until the end. Sometimes people have to actively let go before they can finish their current life. One person said, “There’s too much love around me, I can’t leave when there is so much love.” That’s why some people will wait until there is no one around before they can die. They didn’t want anyone to witness their very end.

We all make choices. Survival is not mandatory. It is an active choice that many of us make. Adapt or die. It’s not that simple. Even coping with a change in time zone can be a challenge as I am finding out today. Yawn.

Palace of Care – Grief Is Bodily Harm?

Photo by Nomad Bikers on Unsplash

It was chaos. They just did not know what to do. Their leader had died and they had no one to give them orders anymore. To many of the young men, it was like they had lost their father. They felt lost again. They didn’t know how to handle the discomfort. They had to escape. Some rode off on their motorbikes. Not knowing where to go, just anywhere else. They had seen dead bodies before, but this was different. They felt like crying but they couldn’t show any weakness. That was not allowed. Men had to be strong, only little boys would shed tears.

The reality was too hard to handle. They had to exit to another place. Running away was an all too familiar feeling for them. There had always been something to fear. They had run for most of their childhoods until they had been found by the boss. He had taught them much. He had taught them how to become men. To behave as real men do. To demand from others the respect they deserved. They would do anything for him, but now he was gone and they didn’t know what to do. The lost boys had known he was sick, but they thought he was going to make it through it all. They had to escape. They needed to get out of there. They flicked their lighters on, lit up their pipes and smoked their sorrow away.

Palace of Care – Q+A

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The reason your legs and tummy are swollen is because of your illness. When you are really unwell the body is under great strain and isn’t able to produce the protein that your body needs. Amongst other roles protein keeps water in your blood supply. When you don’t have enough protein in your blood the water will leak out into your tissues. That’s why your legs and abdomen are so swollen. This is not the kind of swelling which will respond to medications that make you lose water. They would make you lose water from your blood supply leading to dehydration but the fluid in your legs and abdomen would not decrease. Massage can help shift the excess fluid if the problem was blocked lymph glands, but it is unlikely to help the kind of swellings that you have. That being said it can be soothing and can make you more comfortable so I would encourage you to have gentle massages.

We try to be flexible when it comes to visiting hours here. We know that your energy levels are low and that you feel like you need to be at your best whenever your visitors are around. This can be exhausting. I would recommend that unless it is the people closest to you visiting that other visits be limited to ten minutes. You can blame this on me, “that nasty doctor has limited visiting times.” Your energy is a precious and scarce resource. We’re keen to help you save your energy for whatever you feel like doing. Please let us help you. We’re keen to try to make life easier for you if possible.

Palace of Care – First Do No Harm

Photo by Liza Pooor on Unsplash

It’s not like what you see on TV. In real life, resuscitation doesn’t work so well. I’ve worked on many cardiac arrest calls in the past and almost 100% were not successful. In those few successful resuscitations, the person was left physically and mentally damaged. With your burden of disease, the chances of a successful resuscitation would be close to zero. The first thing they teach us in medical school is, “first do no harm.” If something that we are considering doing has questionable benefits but likely harm, we really need to think about it carefully. You have so much going on already, and the last thing we want to do is to make your situation worse. Some of our treatments could worsen things with little chance of benefit. If your heart or lungs were to stop working, we would not be able to bring you back. We would not perform CPR as it would cause you harm with no benefit at all. I don’t think you are at risk of having your heart or lungs stop just yet, but I have to be clear with you as to what to expect. I don’t want there to be any surprises between us. It’s not over yet. So let’s focus on making the most of your time. Let’s concentrate on something that will help you, treatments that can decrease your suffering, and make you more comfortable. Is there something that you have always wanted to do that you haven’t done yet? Is there something nice that we could help organise?

I think therefore I am? – Masks

Photo by Khashayar Kouchpeydeh on Unsplash

Medical masks have become part of daily life in hospice and palliative care units all over the world over the past three years. We have had to get used to having important conversations with most of our faces covered. Compassionate expressions have had to be conveyed with the aid of eyebrows and hands. Smiles have been with eyes only rather than with the full face.

There are a number of workmates I have worked with for two years or more, with which we have never seen each other’s faces. I removed my mask in order to be heard more clearly during a family meeting the other day and my patient who had known me for eight months saw my whole face for the first time. There are young children who have only known people outside of their own families to wear masks most of the time. Things are changing with the easing of COVID restrictions but for the healthcare workforce, it will be a while yet until we can take off our masks for good.

A barrier to viruses can also serve as a barrier to communication. People who have hearing impairments cannot lip-read if other people’s mouths are completely covered. There has been less transmission of yawns. Apparently, if you are more empathetic and you see someone else yawn, it can trigger a yawn of your own.

On the other side of the mask is that there are many choices of masks that people can choose to wear. Maybe it has allowed people to show more clearly what fashions they want to show off. People can show their membership in groups with the type of mask they wear. They don’t just have to be the same old boring surgical light blue but can be any colour of the rainbow.

Has it become easier for people to mask their intentions? What else is being hidden? What else is being left unshared? Kisses are left unblown. We are now more familiar with the smell of our own breath than ever before. What else has been lost since we have been wearing masks? Will we ever get those things back?