I think therefore I am? – Final Human(?) Interaction

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With palliative care/hospice patients and their fragile health status, there is a chance that every time you see them might be the last time they ever have a meaningful connection with a fellow human being. Things can change in an instant, people can lose consciousness or clarity. Keeping this in mind, try to make each interaction as pleasant an encounter as you can for the both of you. The following tells of an unpleasant distressing encounter.

I was asked to see an unwell Oncology patient, who was in a lot of pain, and possibly about to die. There was a language barrier in that he did not speak English, thus an interpreter was organised to facilitate communication. That was the idea anyway, what actually happened was different.

The man in bed looked fragile, he had trouble communicating with his family, as he was lapsing in and out of consciousness. The interpreter arrived, a young man, who looked nervous. He stood at the end of the bed and didn’t greet the patient or his family members. The patient was being prepared for a scan and might need to head downstairs at a moment’s notice, so time was of the essence.

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I think therefore I am? – We told you so

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Too young to be dying , only 32, with two toddlers 3 and 1 years old, she hadn’t even been a smoker. She had only had back pain, and on investigation last year, they found that she had metastatic lung cancer.

She came in with terrible pain, hadn’t been able to sleep for most of the week. Her partner, the father of the children, looked just as exhausted. Looking after her and the two tiny children. A tragic situation.

Pain difficult to control, breathing in a distressed fashion. She could barely leave her bed in the last two days.

Usual rule of thumb applied, if changing over months, months left to live, weeks – weeks, days-days, hours-hours.

Over the past four days, a change noted each single day. We estimated that she only had days to short weeks left to live.

We knew that she was supposed to go to Oncology, to have chemotherapy, but we thought she was too unwell.

We rang the Oncologist to discuss this, that we thought that she was dying, with only days to weeks left to live. We recommended that she not have chemotherapy, as we were concerned it would cause her more harm, than any potential benefit.

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Palace of Care – Best Laid Plans

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Advance Care Planning (ACP) is recommended for everyone. It allows people to convey what is important to them. It can guide loved ones and health professionals as to what your wishes are in the case of you becoming incapable of expressing yourself. Such a situation is possible for anyone and thus it is recommended to be completed whilst you are well. Although it can be hard to imagine how you would feel or act in the event of severe illness or disability. ACP allows people to take some control of the end of their lives. This is what I want, this is want I don’t want. This is who I want around me. This is how I define what is quality of life for me. This is where I draw the line. It can be a confronting and difficult exercise to complete with your loved ones but it maybe a crucial method to communicate what you really want.

My patient had been diagnosed with MND (Motor Neurone Disease) over a year ago, and after attending the second clinic appointment they had introduced him to ACP. He read through the booklet with his wife, and it appealed to his organised nature. He always had a monthly, yearly and five-yearly plan in action. The doctor had said that most people would die of MND 18 months after diagnosis. This can mean time is running out, and this is not aided by diagnostic delay. All other illness have to be excluded before the diagnosis of MND is confirmed, for most people it is still a death sentence.

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Palace of Care – Second Languages Part 2

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I had been on call for the hospital when the little old Chinese man had first presented to hospital. They had discussed his situation, a large stomach cancer which kept on bleeding, and that his Hb level was only 41. My opinion was that he was dying from recurrent bleeding that could not be stopped. My advice was that the hospital team have a discussion with the patient and family about the fact that his bleeding would be a life-ending event, that further transfusions would not be able to keep up with the amount of bleeding that was happening.

Some of my advice was taken, but not everything. It was as if the hospital doctors had spoken to me in a second language, one that didn’t lead to mutual understanding. They did end up having a conversation with the patient and his daughter about no further transfusions, but this was after transfusing one more unit of blood. The hospital doctor could speak Mandarin with the patient and family. He told them that the last unit of blood was an, “especially strong unit of blood, and would give him an extra boost.” Following this final transfusion the patient was sent across to the hospice.

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I think therefore I am? – Dropped

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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?

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I think therefore I am? – Yearning for connection

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What this palliative care doctor thinks:

It’s not just about language, that’s why Google translate can’t replace human interpreters at the moment. It might be able to translate the words literally from one language to another but it doesn’t yet have the cultural context of where the words came from. The history of the language has not been programmed into it. Take English for example a lot of the words we use are derived from French and other Latin-based languages. You don’t ask for sheep meat, you ask for mutton from the French mouton. Similarly beef, not cow meat, from the French boeuf. A translator program is not the same as an interpreter program. Google Interpret would have to be much more sophisticated and would need cultural programming as well as linguistic programming.

A person may be speaking Chinese, but they are also living Chinese. The food that they eat, the clothes that they wear. Rituals that they follow to celebrate life, and how they deal with death and dying are the missing parts of a person’s identity that cannot be easily translated.
The most important tool I have as a palliative care doctor is my ability to communicate. I make a point of greeting my patients in their native language as much as possible. My accented version of their language is my attempt at providing them with a hint of familiarity. In the area I work in people come from all over the world, from lots of different cultures, with over 200 different languages spoken in our area. I certainly do not know all the greetings that are available but a quick Google search can provide me with at least a few words of greeting. A little demonstration of respect that I have made the effort to try to connect with another human being. It may have taken me ten seconds to type in my query but it can often bring a smile to a weary sufferer, whose illness has taken over their body. Someone for whom English may be a second or third language. A little snippet of home, can make a real difference.

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Palace of Care – Smiley

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I had finally completed my examinations and could start my specialist training. I had been drawn to both Medical Oncology and Palliative Medicine from a relatively young age and I could try working in each speciality for six months before deciding which one I wanted to pursue in the long-term.

One morning during my six months working in Medical Oncology I was in clinic with an Oncologist who I considered to be my mentor. Standard practice was for me to see the patient first, then present the case to my mentor, who would then come and see the patient.

A big friendly smile in the form of a slim 26 year old man walked in with his pregnant partner of similar age. They were accompanied by his cousin who was in his 40s. Smiley’s story was a sad one and had begun eight weeks prior to his clinic appointment. Life was good, he had a steady income from a job he enjoyed. In the weekends he loved playing rugby in the local team. He and his partner had been together for five years and were going to take the next step. Baby was on the way, and was due in five months’ time. Everything was going well until it wasn’t.

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Palace of Care – The T-Shirt

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My consultant asked the young man, “What would you like us to call you?”

He answered, “Your highness.”

“Okay your highness, how have you been?”

That was an entertaining start to the therapeutic relationship which put everyone at ease, and allowed for an air of playfulness to come into the clinical encounter. The patient was in his late thirties and had come into hospital with severe pain. It was likely due to cancer metastases, and he was still recovering from his last cycle of chemotherapy when we visited him.

He talked about what was most important to him, spending time with his young son. This was whilst he was carefully mixing flax seed oil into a serving of yoghurt, as part of a cancer treatment diet that he was trying. He would try anything to keep himself going and wanted to spend as much time with his son as possible.

Despite all the treatments that he had received the cancer continued to progress causing ever more problems. The side-effects of the aggressive treatment were severe and included the loss of his hair. He said that he had always had good hair, and it was one of his personal trademarks since he was a teenager. Now he didn’t mind losing his hair, and he had even designed a t-shirt for the sake of entertaining himself and those who looked after him.

He loosened his dressing gown and revealed his creation. In bold font it simply said, “Hair by Chemo.”

Palace of Care – See the difference Mum?

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The other doctor was Asian too, but he had such sad eyes.

I said to him, don’t look at me with your sad eyes.

See mum, he just told me really bad news, but he did it in a gentle fashion.

That’s the difference compared to the hospital doctors.

He sat down, talked to me, we had some laughs.

He prepared me for the bad news and then delivered it, and didn’t run away.

Sat right in front of me, asked me if I had any questions.

The others sort of threw the bad news at me, and then ran out of the room as if they’ve just thrown in a grenade.

Danger, danger, gotta get out before it explodes.

Hot potato, pass it on, quickly or you’ll burn your hands.

I can handle the bad news, I’ve had plenty of it. Where’s the respect, you just tell me the worst thing in the world, and then you run off as if you are the one who is hurting?

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Palace of Care – No Surprises

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Is it the medication making him drowsy, there’s been a big increase in the medications since yesterday, I want them cut back down again.

I’m really worried about your Dad. I don’t think it’s just the medications changes causing him to change. His pain and nausea have worsened a lot over the past three days. It’s a shame as he was doing so well the other day.

It’s not right, he should be getting better, not going backwards. You know he was an alcoholic, I’m worried that he’s become addicted to the pain killers. He hates being confused, that’s what he was like when he drank, he really doesn’t want to go there.

I don’t think that addiction is the problem here, his pain and nausea are worse, I think it’s the cancer causing this. If I decreased his medications now, he would become much more uncomfortable. I don’t want him to suffer.

What about his radiotherapy appointment, that will give him a boost right?

He’ll get the side effect right away, but the benefit might not occur for some weeks. I’m really not sure if he has weeks left to live. I’m worried that if he keeps on deteriorating at the same rate, that he might only have days left to live. We usually say if you are changing over months, you might have months left, same applies to weeks and days.

Really, you think he might only have days left?

Yeah, so I’m not sure that he will be well enough for radiotherapy. I know he wanted it and so do all of you, but I’m not sure that he will be well enough to make the appointment.

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