Palace of Care – Dehumidifier

Photo by Laårk Boshoff on Unsplash

We didn’t know what was keeping him going. He hadn’t eaten anything for ten days. No drinks for days. Somehow he was still producing urine. Where did it come from? His son speculated that he was drawing the water out of the room’s atmosphere. “Dad’s become a dehumidifier.”

He had outlived many doctors’ prognostication attempts, including my own. “Anyone else would’ve died a week ago. He’s not anyone else he’s stronger than most people.” Somehow he had stayed alive with his metastatic cancer for four years. He had received multiple treatments over the years. They had kept him alive, but the last three months had been a struggle. He had lost 20kg over the years of illness. 10kg had been lost in the past three months because of severe nausea.

The cancer was cruel as it melted his body away it took away his appetite. His once mighty frame was reduced to skin and bone. He still wasn’t used to his reflection, it had continued to change. Despite all of the weight loss, one thing he never lost was his sense of humour.

In life he had always done things in his way, at his own pace and it was no different in his death. The family maintained their long vigil, and he remained mostly asleep but responsive when he was awake. If our staff found evidence of his imminent death we would inform them. We also warned them that sometimes people don’t want anyone to be around at the point of death and that he might slip away when an opportunity presented itself.

He was kept calm and comfortable. His family were supported and our patient died three days later.

Palace of Care – Doting Children

Photo by Philippe Jausions on Unsplash

“The Oncologist told us they would only live for another three weeks.”

“When was that?”

“Three months ago.”

“The good care you and your sibling provided kept them going. Now they are tired, and their body can’t handle the cancer anymore.”

“We are at breaking point ourselves. We can’t sleep well, and the tears keep coming.”

“You are both very close to your parent, you have looked after them well.”

“The last months had been hard, but the last weeks have been terrible. We have had to help with everything.”

“They are exhausted. Yesterday they told me they thought their time was short, that death would happen soon. I agree with them. We will get them through this, and get you and your sibling through this too.”

“The phlegm is causing them distress, and the breathing. They couldn’t relax last night. The medications helped briefly but then they couldn’t lie still. I kept awake too. They keep on asking for water, but it will go into the lung. Their swallowing is getting worse.”

“If it will make them feel better they can have some water. It won’t make things much worse but might bring them some comfort. If they developed an infection I wouldn’t treat it, as it might be gentler to die of the infection rather than dying of cancer. We’ll change the medications to make them more comfortable.”

“Please do, make them comfortable. Too much suffering already. They were always proud of their appearance but in the last weeks, no energy to do anything.”

“They’ve hated not being able to do what they want?”

“Yes, they even asked about assisted dying. They’ve always been so independent, not being able to do anything for themselves has been awful.”

“Natural death is going to happen soon, they wouldn’t make it through the assisted dying assessment process. They’re likely going to fall asleep soon. We’ll keep them comfortable.”

“Thank you doctor, can we stay here in the hospice.”

“Of course, you all need to stay here, we’ll look after you all.”

Palace of Care – Strongest

Photo of Cassia Fistula by Winston Chen on Unsplash

“Hey, long time no see.”

“Hello Doctor, how are you?”

“I’m good, how are you doing?”

“I’m sleepy and tired, that’s what I do. I sleep most of the day and the night.”

“Do you have any pain?”

“No, the pain is well controlled. The urine is still bubbly. Why is that?”

“Your cancer has caused a connection between your bowel and bladder. It’s called a fistula. It’s a sign that it is getting worse.”

“Yes, I am getting worse. I felt so unwell the other day. I thought that my end had come. I just felt so deeply tired. I couldn’t get out of bed for two days. My family and the hospice staff thought I was going to die.”

“Then you woke up again today?”

“Yes, and I’m going to spend some time at home. How long have I got left?”

“I don’t know. I thought you were days away from dying a few times over the past weeks. You keep on proving me wrong, over and over again. You’re stronger than most humans. I think you’re the strongest person I have met in my 15 years of working in palliative care. I don’t know how you do it.”

“I don’t know either. I feel so tired, but I keep on hanging on.”

“You’re being yourself. I wish I could be more accurate with your timeline. You are deteriorating but your willpower is still strong, but your body is fading.”

“Yes, my memory has gone, and I talk to people who are not there, sometimes for a long time.”

“Is that distressing you?”

“No, it isn’t too bad. I can handle it but I get irritated sometimes.”

“Let us know if it gets too annoying, and we can adjust your medications.”

“Okay.”

“You enjoy your time at home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thanks Doctor.”

I think therefore I am? – On Death and Dying

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

I virtually attended a Palliative Medicine conference over the past three days and have heard talks from a wide range of speakers. Included were a gastroenterologist and a haematologist both from specialties who are still unsure about which patients to refer to palliative care, and when to refer them.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if all the referrals we get are very late then we cannot do as much for the patients and their families. If the referral only arrives 72 hours before death or two weeks before death, does that mean palliative care is synonymous with end-of-life care? But that is not what we are trying to do in reality. Our services are happy to work alongside other specialties. A patient can be on the liver transplant waiting list and also receive palliative care from the local hospice. This is different to the USA where admission to the hospice programme means you cannot have ‘active’ treatments anymore. We have many patients who are still on their palliative chemotherapy/radiotherapy/immunotherapy and many other active treatments including haemodialysis. Even as the patient undergoes various treatments we are keen to help reduce suffering in its many forms, both physical and emotional, spiritual, and social.

How can we get this important message across? A patient referred to palliative care/hospice doesn’t mean that you have given up on them. One of my mentors Dr David Perez who worked in Medical Oncology would talk to his patients about coming to the point where there were no more active Oncology treatments available and the time had come for Active Palliative Care.

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I think therefore I am? – On Utopias

From next week I’m joining 199 others to explore the concept of utopias.

“To create a future that works, we must work together.” – Margaret Atwood

I’m proud to have been selected as a Fellow in Practical Utopias: An Exploration of the Possible led by @MargaretAtwood on @discolearn!

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn and collaborate with 200 changemakers from around the globe to unlock practical solutions to some of humanity’s biggest challenges, the climate crisis being foremost. 

Want to play a part in co-designing a better future? Get involved: https://disco.co/atwood

I’m currently doing some of the preparatory readings and as part of my personal preparation I’m reading the Report of the Lancet Commission on the Value of Death.

The Lancet Commission on the Value of Death sets out five principles of a realistic utopia, a new vision of how death and dying could be.

Click the link above and check it out for yourself.

Palace of Care – Death of an Elder

Photo by The Good Funeral Guide on Unsplash

A mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother died. This news spread quickly around the world. Condolences were sent from many different countries. Nothing would ever be the same again for her family or their world. An end of an era. She had ruled for many decades and the whole household had to be on its best behaviour. Nothing would escape her notice despite the loss of major senses.

They were constantly reminded of where they had come from and who was responsible for their comfortable lives. She was ancient when her reign finally ended. There would be mixed emotions. Sadness would predominate but if everyone was being honest it would be twinged with some relief.

In her day she had been formidable, nothing could stop her from bending the will of others. The last years had become increasingly difficult. She required loyalty above all. Her body wouldn’t answer the mind’s questions anymore.

She caught COVID from her great-grandchild who had brought it home from a school camp. She survived it with no ill effect. If anything the virus seemed to sharpen her failing cognition.

Too many falls over the years but the last one was the worst. Concussion and almost death. She went into the local hospice and survived for several months after discharge.

We paid our respects with four generations of members gathered to say goodbye to her.

Rest in peace Matriarch.

I think therefore I am? – Navigation

Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash

There isn’t always a map available especially if you are journeying into the unknown. That’s what it can feel like heading towards the end of your life. I haven’t been on the final journey myself but I have been alongside others during their journeys.

It is not my journey, I am not the driver. I am there to act as a guide, to help people through rough territory. I will point out obstacles along the way. I will guide you through difficult passages of your journey. I will keep things as calm as I can.

The ancient navigators had to rely on their skills in order to travel thousands of miles across vast oceans. I will use my skills to help navigate you through your final journey. I will make sure that you are looked after and kept comfortable. My goal is to eliminate as much stress and distress as possible. Your loved ones will also be along for the journey but like me they can only go so far on the journey. The final part of the trip we will have to leave you, but before then we will prepare the way as much as possible.

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I think therefore I am? – Final Call

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How can I tell when someone is about to die? I have had practice, especially over the 15 years I have worked full-time in palliative care. It is not so much a science as an art. You try to find evidence to prove your diagnosis. A person has become less active. They need to rest or sleep more. They have become less mobile. They are eating less. They are losing weight. They are losing their interests. They are engaging less with the world around them. This might be what we see in the months preceding death.

In the weeks all of the above continues, and there is an overall diminishing of a person. They may be physically shrinking before your eyes. Cheek and other facial bones become more prominent. Their movements may slow down. Movement of limbs, movements of bowels. The body’s functional ability becomes impaired. This could lead to loss of balance and falls. Falls could lead to minor injuries like skin tears or bruises, or major injuries such as broken bones. The appetite worsens even more. Sense of taste and smell may fade, as the body starts to fade away.

I often talk about the spark leaving people’s eyes. In Māori, they talk about the Mauri or life force of a person. Which could be a synonym, maybe spirit or soul could also fit. Mojo could be another. The sign of an energised being, a sign that life is still there to be lived. No matter how physically frail a body may become the spark can hang in there for a while. It can be hard to describe exactly what it is.

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Palace of Care – Confusion

Photo by Alex Vámos on Unsplash

We were confused by the discharge letter. Our patient had been transferred from the hospital after a two-week admission. During the admission, the Oncology treatments had been stopped. On discharge, it appeared that the medications had been restarted. The Oncologist’s plan was unclear. On the second day, the patient developed a new abdominal pain. The pain was so severe that the patient felt they were ready to die. We changed their pain relief and also tried to cover the shortness of breath. By the afternoon the patient was more comfortable and able to sleep. The family had received a phone call asking for the patient to return to the hospital for further treatment. This surprised the family and our hospice team as the patient had barely been in the inpatient unit for 24 hours, and the hospital asked them to return. We called Oncology to find out what was going on. They wanted to give radiotherapy treatment to the patient’s back, for pain relief. We said we would see how the patient was the next morning as we were unsure if they’d be well enough to return to the hospital.

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Palace of Care – Leave Request

Photo by Kevin Gent on Unsplash

“Doctor, can I go out on leave this weekend?”

“What have you got planned?”

“I’m going home to spend time with my family, to see my children at home.”

“Will you be doing any cooking or cleaning?”

“No, I learnt my lesson last weekend.”

“You did too much?”

“Yes, I didn’t think to ask for help, I wanted to do the cooking all by myself. It used to be so easy. If I had allowed them to chop some vegetables I wouldn’t have been so tired.”

“It was a struggle wasn’t it?”

“Yes, I became irritated and grumpy.”

“You can certainly go home on leave but I don’t want you doing any work. You are there to rest and spend time with your kids. I don’t want you doing the housework.”

“I’ve had to let it go. After I am gone they will be in charge of the house and do things their own way.”

“It must have been hard for you to let go.”

“I don’t have much time left or energy.”

“You’re human, not superhuman.”

“Yes.”

“Are you going shopping again?”

“Yes, I have to buy clothes for the children…for them to wear to my funeral.”

“Buying the clothes sounds important to you.”

“I’ve always wanted them to look good. It’s important to look your best at all times.”

“Have a good weekend.”

“You too Doctor, see you Monday.”