I heard the loud and proud singing from the carpark. The vibrant and powerful voices of the Gospel Choir required no amplification. Their harmonies stirred even the singers to tears, let alone their audience.
We were all gathered to celebrate a life and to say goodbye. In my 23 years of medical practice, I had previously been to only one patient’s funeral. This was number two.
The husband had requested that we all wore black. I wore a dark suit, a white shirt and a tie with yellow smiley emojis. Partially hidden under dark coats were yellow and other colourful dresses. Vivid scarves provided obvious contrast to otherwise fully black outfits. Yellow earrings dangled from the ear lobes of some of the ladies. The young men wore black, apart from their highly decorated sneakers.
We all stood up and the room quietened as the pallbearers carried the gleaming yellow coffin with loving care.
I looked through the window at the front of the room and I noticed a small yellow feathered bird frolicking in the bubbling waters of the spherical fountain.
It was lovely to hear about our patient’s rich life from friends, workmates and family members. In Palliative Care/Hospice we only meet people when they are very unwell. We often don’t know what they were like before their illness changed every thing.
I had been asked to talk on behalf of our hospice. I talked about the strongest patient I had ever met in my fifteen years of palliative care. Someone who had surprised me with her resilience. She made me negotiate every change in medication over the past six months. I talked about when I thought she was about to fall asleep for the last time and then hours later she went out to the shopping mall.
She had wanted to buy the piece of furniture for her living room for some years, but she had been too busy. Working, caring for her family, entertaining friends, and living a full life. Then the illness and its treatments had taken over her calendar appointments. In her last weeks, she had filled in the last remaining space in her living room, the seat was upholstered, of course, in yellow.
Education was always so important, she didn’t want the kids to miss out on school. As many children were present for her funeral, a science lesson was shared about Mitochondria.
I talked about when she saw my yellow scrubs for the first time. She smiled and laughed before changing her outfit. She had asked her friend to take a photo of us in our yellow outfits. Both of us also wore matching socks.
In her final weeks, I had worn my yellow scrubs more often. Each day I thought it might be the last time she would see them. I told her again that whenever I wear my yellow scrubs in the future I would think of her.
The photos always get me. The montage accompanied by a heartbreaking song, showed happier and much healthier times. A younger couple with tiny toddlers in photos taken from various holiday trips in exotic locations. The pictures of the beautiful family, with the rest of their lives together to look forward to, deepened the ache of the afternoon gathering.
We all stood up as the six men took their places at the side of the sacred yellow vessel. They took their sombre steps out to the waiting hearse. We followed them outside and were offered white petals with which to say our final goodbyes.
Yellow balloons were released by her tuxedo and formal dress adorned children. Goodbye Mummy.
The sturdy videographer raised his arms in order to capture the right shot. The too-pale skin of his ample abdomen blinded us previously innocent bystanders. Captain Ahab would’ve been driven into a frenzy. We closed our eyes but a dark-coloured island continent was burned into our retinae. Thankfully we had not glimpsed Tasmania.
She would not have approved of his shirt not being tucked in and would’ve had a few choice words to share with him, in a polite but forthright manner.
We waved goodbye as the hearse rounded the corner.
One of the impacts of COVID I have noticed in the past two years is the increase in late diagnoses and subsequent late referrals to palliative care. Access to medical care shifted towards virtual means around the world and people may have put off visits to the doctor as for a while it was not easy to be seen in person.
There have been many late and in some cases too late referrals to palliative care. This creates a scramble situation as our services try to respond to the urgent need. Often in the last two years, we have received patients transferred for end-of-life care who may only have been diagnosed mere weeks before death.
We do the best we can to help them but it can feel rushed. A connection needs to be made to help the patient and their family. Rapport needs to be built and in an ideal world, we would like to have more time to build a therapeutic relationship before the patient becomes too unwell to engage with us fully. We don’t always have this luxury and have to make the connection faster. This is not a smooth process, the stakes are higher, emotions are rawer, and stress levels increased.
A short therapeutic relationship also means disconnection needs to occur in a faster manner as well. We are involved in some cases only for short days or hours in some cases. The ability to connect and disconnect without losing your humanity is an art to be developed. Strong boundary perception is important otherwise we couldn’t continue doing this job day in and day out. A delicate balance is required between connection and disconnection. Attachment and detachment. Involvement but not enmeshment. Empathy and compassion without entanglement. Human commonality and professionalism. We try our best to do enough.