Ford Prefect says, “An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot.”
The Somebody Else’s Problem field… relies on people’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.
From Douglas Adams’ Life, The Universe and Everything 1982
The SEP field generator is an incredible thing, where-ever you shine the beam, like an amazing piece of magic, suddenly the problem disappears and becomes someone else’s problem.
Sound familiar when you think of palliative care patients and their problems?
Other specialities do this to us all of the time, they leave work unfinished or not even attempted. They somehow know that us good-natured folks will make sure that things are sorted.
This isn’t really fair to us, but especially unfair to the patient. Where is the patient in all of this? Certainly not in the centre of attention.
The little old Chinese man, looked so pale, he didn’t know what to do with himself. His short-term memory had been impaired for some years but had worsened in recent months as he became more unwell.
We both used our second language to communicate with each other Mandarin. Both speaking with thick accents, but able to understand each other. His supportive daughter had come over from China to look after him and his wife. They had lived in New Zealand for over twenty years.
He had always been terrible at reporting his discomfort. His daughter talked about when he had appendicitis and had not told anyone until he almost died of an intra-abdominal infection after his appendix had burst. His stock answer would be to say, I am fine, but his body language was a give away for his wife and daughter. He didn’t let anyone know that he had painful shingles until he was found writhing in bed, crying because of pain, telling his family that the pain was so bad that he wanted to die.
Reincarnation was one of the topics of conversation in the first room this morning. Our patient was a believer and had told his wife that she would come back as a dog. Unfortunately one of their daughters had died only a few years ago. It is always difficult for parents to deal with, as it goes against nature’s order to have a child die before a parent. One of the tragedies in life that elderly people would like to avoid if at all possible. Their daughter had died but had left her traces everywhere.
She had always loved butterflies, and had grown lots of swan plants in order to provide food for her favourite Monarch butterflies. She had a keen eye for their caterpillars and could see them from a distance, their yellow, black and white lines indicating their presence. She especially loved the pupae/cocoons that would form as the caterpillars went through the biggest changes in their lives, metamorphosis. Coming out the other side of the process transformed, with a new outlook on life and the ability to fly. Looking so different in colour scheme and features. She had always loved to have butterflies around. In some cultures it is believed that butterflies are visiting dead friends and family members who have come to see you from the other side of the grave. This is a comforting thing to have your ancestors come to see how you are.
Our patient had been steadily deteriorating over the past week, and he and the family had derived some comfort in being visited by Monarch butterflies. It was thought that their late daughter/sister was visiting their father as he entered his final cocoon state, just before dying. I told them that when people die in our hospice we would affix a butterfly to the door.
I have often drawn cocoons on our patient list board to indicate that people are undergoing the final transformation in their life, the dying process. One in which everything starts to wind down, the heart, lungs and other organ functions change. A person becomes sleepier, and less clear in their mind, Nature or a higher power’s way of protecting the dying person from the full experience of dying.
“Please keep on talking to him, he can hear you, but might not be able to respond to you.” Family members were considering leaving for home to come back again soon, but I advised that he could die at anytime, and that traveling under lockdown restrictions was not as easy as usual. Probably better to hang around and support each other for a few more days.
I feel so lost, I feel so alone, aren’t I good enough for you? What did I do wrong? Why did you change so suddenly? I thought you’d always be there for me. I thought you’d have my back.
Many different people may be felt to be the other, this can have a racial basis, or be on a religious basis. People are labeled as other to justify treating them badly, and this is an unjust situation in this day and age. What other justifications are there for bad treatment of our fellow humans?
Palliative care patients may face stigmatisation for being closer to dying than most people. Oh well they’re going to die anyway, so why should we bother taking care of them? Just shove them in the corner and pull the curtain around them, and forget about them. Out of sight and out of mind. Not my problem mate. Who cares they’re dying anyway, not worth me expending any effort on them. I beg to differ, dying people deserve even more respect, as they are about to leave our planet, off to somewhere else, destination unknown. What will happen next? I don’t know.
It hurts to be rejected, to be pushed away, sometimes literally pushed away. I don’t want anything to do with you. Please leave, bad enough when you are trying to find a date, but when you are at the end of your life, how much more hurtful could that feel?
She was transferred from hospital into hospice at the end of her life and only had days left to live. End-stage cancer had taken complete control of her body. We were handed over that it was important that we respect her wishes especially when it came to calling her by her proper name. It was a name that she had to fight for, that she had won for herself, but at great cost.
Not everyone understood her wishes. When her relatives came to see her they brought old family photos, and called her by a different name. She looked different in the photos, much younger, and dressed in different clothes. We were all young once. She was becoming less responsive as each day passed and her family talked about someone who sounded different to the patient that we had only a short time to get to know.
Working in the community palliative care team I don’t meet in person most of the patients that are under our team’s care. I often have to provide advice for people that I have never met and have to count on my staff members’ assessments as the basis of knowledge of each patient. This is how our specialist support is provided from a distance, this allows me to have about 380 patients under my consultant remote control supervision at any time. Often I will provide advice which will be conveyed to the patient and their family doctor to be actioned.
This is the story of someone I never actually met but whom I provided advice on, an elderly Jewish lady who was a Holocaust survivor. I never found out which concentration camp she had lived through but somehow she had stayed alive when many had not. When she was young all control of her life had been taken away from her. Separated from her family whom she never saw again, made to endure hellish conditions, tattooed and emotionally scarred for life, she some how made it through her ordeal. She moved to New Zealand, married a local man, had children and grand-children and a rich and rewarding family life.
Recently her health had taken a turn for the worse and she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer with spread to her brain, causing headaches, and seizures. Despite having had radiotherapy treatment and high dose corticosteroid treatment her symptoms worsened. She was still clear in her thinking but was at risk of this deteriorating soon.
The following are my own personal professional views and do not represent those of my employer or of Palliverse in general.
I’m not interested in debating the pros and cons of assisted dying, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. In Nov 2020, 82% of eligible voters voted in the referendum, 65% of the voters supported the End Of Life Choice Act 2019. Aotearoa/NZ clearly stated it’s opinion last year, and in two days’ time it will become law.
I do not want my patients to be caught in the middle of two warring ideologies.
I am not here to argue, I am here to listen to my patient, I am here to learn from them. They are the expert when it comes to what they are going through and their suffering is defined by them, not by me.
I think that we in Hospice/Palliative Care need to build a bridge and get over ourselves. Our focus should be on our patients, not on ourselves.
Please treat patients with respect, they weren’t born yesterday, but they might die tomorrow.
St Joseph’s Hospice was founded in 1967 by Cicely Saunders in order to help cancer patients for whom medicine had nothing else to offer. Often these patients would suffer from the effects of their illnesses and died in miserable circumstances which were distressing to both patients and their families. Over the next decades hospice/palliative care services developed all over the world, and practitioners pride themselves on being patient-centric. Hospice/palliative care staff value their communication skills, and listen actively in order to find out what their patients need. They try to offerbespoke care customised to the individual patient and their family.
In New Zealand on 07 November 2021 the End of Life Choice Act 2019 will be enacted which will mean that people with less than six months to live who have intolerable suffering and fulfil the criteria can legally access assisted dying services. New Zealand Hospice and Palliative Care organisations around the country have put forward a viewpoint that they are not supportive of assisted dying, and have largely not engaged with the subject at all despite it becoming legal and available in five days’ time.
What if NZ Hospice/Palliative Care was to try to empathise with someone with the opposing point of view. What if it was to put itself into the shoes of a person considering accessing assisted dying services? What might such a person have to say to them?
The old Chinese man was admitted with uncontrolled pain and breathing distress. His wife and son doted upon him and were worried about him as he had been rapidly worsening over the past weeks. He had previously had fluid from around his lung drained in hospital the other month, which had helped his breathing. His symptoms were controlled quickly but he still felt exhausted.
Even speaking to him in his native Mandarin Chinese it was difficult to tell what he really wanted. He appeared to know that things were worsening. It was just before New Zealand’s general election, and the End of Life Choice Act 2019 was being considered for enactment via National Referendum. He told me that he had already cast his vote and was in support of having the option of assisted dying. His son quickly told him that even if it was voted in that it could not be accessed until another 12 months.