Palace of Care – Terroir

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We celebrated International Nurses Day last Thursday with a special breakfast with lots of goodies for all. Nurses are a crucial part of any palliative care and hospice team and it was great to celebrate them with some special treats. Individual paper hats were made available each adorned with little red Superman style shields, thanking them for being heroic in the jobs that they do. Special little bags of sweets were prepared and handed out to all of our staff.

There was a buzz of mirth and fun throughout our inpatient unit and this was noticed by the patients and their families too. One couple commented on it being nice to hear raucous laughter happening outside of their room. It was nice to be staying in a healthcare institution where people were enjoying each other’s company at work. This couple had stayed in many different healthcare institutions over the past years and thus spoke from experience.

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Palace of Care – Straight Up

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I felt it as soon as I arrived in this hospice. The wairua (spirit) felt good, and I started laughing. This place is lovely, the staff are so nice here Doc.

Were you scared of coming in?

Nah, I had heard good things about you fullas. And it was all true, you guys make me feel comfortable.

What did they tell you in hospital?

The doctor was straight up, told me what was going on. That it was bad cancer, that there was nothing else that could be done. No bullshitting like some of the other doctors.

Hmmm?

I went to the clinic and the doctor told me that there is nothing else that can be done. Then he talked about a possible treatment. I’m not sure if it was me that was confused or the doctor. I just want people to be honest with me. I’m not scared, I know I’m not well. We’ve lost a lot of whanau (family) in the past. I know what is happening, I’m dying. Can you be straight up and honest with me?

Sure. How are you really feeling?

A bit sore, I think I need the extra pain relief. Hey Doc, thanks for listening to me.

No worries, please tell us when you are not comfortable.

I think therefore I am? – Hello

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Working in a culturally and ethnically diverse area over the past ten years I make the effort to try to greet my patients and their families in their native language. My pronunciation may not be great to start with but I try. Even if it means looking up the greeting online before I walk in the room. How would I feel if I was admitted to a hospice in my adopted home country? What would make me feel welcome or not?

A small gesture to show that I am trying to understand you and who you are.

Here is my part of my collection of Pacific Island hellos in no particular order:

Fiji

Bula Vinaka
Namaste

Tonga

Mālō e lelei

Samoa

Talofa lava

Niue

Fakalofa ahi atu

Tuvalu

Fakatalofa atu

Tokelau

Mālo ni

Cook Islands

Kia orana

Aotearoa New Zealand

Kia ora

Australia

Gidday

I’m always keen to add to my collection if you have any suggestions.

Palace of Care – A difficult post to write

I started writing this post two years ago, and I tried to complete it this time last year but I wasn’t able to. I have finally completed it today, and it serves as a sneak preview chapter for my upcoming book Bedside Lessons which will be available for purchase on Amazon Kindle on 09 June 2022.

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Death Jumps The Fence – I miss my mum

Every Friday I usually wear a fish neck-tie and chips socks, this is in honour of my parents who ran their fish and chip shop for 35 years. Friday was always the busiest day thanks to ancient papal decree. Mum loved to work in the shop and chatted to generations of families who were regular customers. Mum’s eyesight was destroyed by an autoimmune condition called Uveitis. This stopped her from driving her car that she had owned since it was brand new. A red 1982 Toyota Corona – Popularity has decreased since 2020. Not being able to drive limited Mum’s independence. Her partial blindness in one eye, and near total blindness in the other didn’t stop her working. Somehow she would still cross one of my hometown Napier’s busiest street to walk to the shop. She loved serving her customers and always had a friendly smile for them. Apart from rheumatoid arthritis and a blood disorder, Mum’s health was good until her final illness.

It all started early one morning, when severe back pain woke Mum up. She was rushed to hospital and couldn’t move her left leg. The initial differential diagnosis was of a stroke but the head scan did not reveal any brain issues. Further tests discovered a blood clot which had blocked the spinal artery which supplied the area of spinal cord controlling the left leg. Mum had been troubled by a blood disorder for the previous five years. This led to her blood being thicker than usual, which may have caused the clot formation. Blood thinning medication was started. Other tests discovered a suspicious mass lesion in her chest. A biopsy was requested.

Whilst awaiting the biopsy Mum was reviewed by a lung doctor who bluntly told her that she had cancer, and that she would need to have intensive treatments. These would need to be done at the regional cancer therapy centre, two hours drive away. This sent my Mum, who was always a bit anxious, into a tailspin. She stopped eating, couldn’t sleep, and was inconsolable.
Mum had a good memory throughout her life, but in the months prior to this illness she had started having short term memory loss. Looking back at this her illness had likely taken its toll on her memory. Two days after the bluntly delivered unconfirmed diagnosis Mum had forgotten what had been said, and was able to continue her recuperation. She knew that a biopsy had been arranged but could not remember what for. The prospect of it terrified her.

I flew back to Napier on a Friday morning to help Mum get through her biopsy. She was scared and needed her hand held. The radiology team who were performing the biopsy ushered me in the room, and I gently told Mum to take deep breaths. I explained to her in Mandarin Chinese, “There will be some pain from an injection. Then your skin will go numb. They’re about to put in another needle. It shouldn’t hurt, let me know if it does. There will be some pressure but it shouldn’t hurt.”

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I think therefore I am? – SEP

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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.

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Palace of Care – A New Dawn

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I received an email from someone wanting to undergo an assisted death.

I replied with general advice that was available online on the New Zealand government’s assisted dying website.

The person replied outlining their situation. They had been approved for an assisted death by the national service. Their residential care facility which had been home for the past four months would not allow assisted dying to occur on its premises. Their local hospice had made it clear that they would not be an option.

I explained that we had initially planned to offer our venue for people in our catchment area, but would consider cases from elsewhere. I promised to consult my team, and we agreed that we would be able to provide a venue. An onsite meeting and tour of our facilities was arranged, scheduled for a time when the patient’s family would be available. This would be the first time that we would meet a patient accessing this service, which made us feel nervous.

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Palace of Care – What’s in a word?

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It was his second admission. He had been beautifully cared for by his family over many months, but the last week had been terrible. He was agitated, restless, and did not know what to do with himself. His wife wanted him to come back into hospice for end of life care.

On arrival he was semi-conscious, agitated and not able to talk clearly. His body was so unwell that his mind was no longer able to be lucid. Although he tried so hard to be there, it looked as if he was in-between two worlds. His family reported that he had seen dead ancestors.

I didn’t want there to be any surprises: I spoke in a quiet voice and tried to be as clear to them as possible, using simple English.

He is so unwell, so exhausted. He is dying.

I purposefully used the word dying at least five times during the 15 minutes of my visit.

When someone is dying everything inside can become all messed up, like he’s in a storm. He doesn’t know which way is up or down, and it might be really scary for him.

End of life delirium/terminal restlessness.

When someone is dying, they become less clear in their thinking, and sleepier. That is Nature or a higher power’s [palms open being raised towards the ceiling] way of protecting the dying person from having to have the full 3D/HD experience of dying.

He could see that his own distress was causing distress to his family, which caused him further distress.

I will change his medications to relax him. We’re going to calm it all down, and we are going to get him through this. We’re going to get you all through this.

I was caught off guard when he suddenly opened his eyes and reached out to shake my hand in both of his. He thanked me for what I had done for him.

Nek minnit – [I was being hugged and I hugged him back.]

Palace of Care – Charm Person

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I have only ever played the computerised version of Dungeons and Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game, and the version I played was more of a battle simulator. You went on quests with your band of characters, exploring different places, constantly running into trouble. Fights would involve cold hard steel, and mysterious magical spells. Some spells had obvious intended effects, e.g. Stinking Cloud (now that’s magic that I have understood since I discovered baked beans as a kid,) Hold person. A favourite spell of mine was Charm Person, casting this spell on an enemy could instantly change them into a team-mate.

As I started practising medicine as a junior doctor I often fancifully wished that some of the Dungeons and Dragons spells would work in real life. Over the past 22 years I have searched for Heal Person, Cure wounds, Revivify and have been caught short. If only life was that easy. I often wish that I had a magic wand that could change my patients condition for the better, I really do. Or magic pills or potions that would lead to a cure. Sometimes the best magic I can offer is to soothe suffering, provide comfort, offer support. On occasions I have had to use Charm Person, and sometimes even Charm Monster.

Illness can bring out the worst in people, but some people might not have been all that easy to get along with even when they were physically well. There are no difficult people or patients but at times communicating with humans can prove to be a difficult endeavour.

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Palace of Care – You Are All On My Side

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The hospital palliative care nurse called me to refer a lady in her late 80s who prior to admission had lived independently until she started falling over. It was minor slips with minor injuries, then moderate trips with moderate injuries. In the past week she had a major fall, resulting in life-threatening injuries. Hospital tests showed that her chemical balances were all out, that a lot of bones and organ tissue had been replaced by cancer. The reason that she had lost her physical balance was that the cancer had invaded her spine, crushing the spinal cord and rendering her lower body weaker and then paralysed. She could no longer move her legs, but unfortunately could feel pain, and in fact her legs had become hypersensitive to pain. The bundle of nerves that make up the spinal cord do not like being pushed on, and scream out in protest.

During her week in hospital she had almost died twice. Each time, somehow she had recovered. Each time she was left devastated that she had recovered. From being fully independent, she had become fully dependent, a situation that she found impossible to tolerate. She had some stern conversations with The Almighty, she was not happy with what he had chosen for her. Her beloved husband had died over 30 years ago and there wasn’t a day that she didn’t think about him. She wished to be at his side again.

She asked the nice hospital palliative care nurse about the assisted dying service that she had heard about. Printed information was provided which was read and digested, with some difficulty as the pain in her legs and bottom still bothered her despite the pain relief she was given. She thought that she would qualify for assisted dying, having met all of the eligibility criteria and still maintaining her decision making capacity. The palliative care nurse said that no-one in the hospital provided the service, but that a referral could be made to the Ministry of Health in order for them to assign a practitioner to her. A process that would usually take two to six weeks to complete. Her ward team made the referral to the national service.

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Guest Post – Naomi’s Notes – Making Friends

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The sound of the skipping rope whirring as it hit the ground meant their father was up.  He used to skip every day before he went to work.  

He taught his children resilience, to never give up when learning something new no matter how difficult it was. “You just gotta make friends with it”, he used to say.  

He loved his children and would try and spoil them when he could.   

He fancied himself as a mechanic and would often diagnose the car trouble as needing new spark plugs.  When asked if he had fixed the car he nodded and said  it didn’t need the key to start it, you just had to stand at the front step and clap your hands and it would come.

He was of that generation where you didn’t tell your kids you loved them but you showed them.  When his children told him they loved him it was met by an embarrassed silence.

The removal of his gall bladder heralded the start of his decline. He became increasingly ill and grumpy and as the days moved on he became less communicative.  He was always very direct in his communication. When his children spoke to him on the phone he never said hello or goodbye. He said their name and at the end just hung up.

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