Palace of Care – What’s in a word?

Photo by Davide Zacchello on Unsplash

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

Photo by Clint Bustrillos on Unsplash

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.

Continue reading

Palace of Care – You Are All On My Side

Photo by Sorin Gheorghita on Unsplash

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.

Continue reading

Guest Post – Naomi’s Notes – Making Friends

Photo by Jason Pofahl on Unsplash

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.

Continue reading

Palace of Care – Second Languages Part 2

Photo by Jaddy Liu on Unsplash

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.

Continue reading

Palace of Care – PI – Palliative Investigator

Photo by N. on Unsplash

She was one of our community patients, a lady in her early forties who had been deteriorating over the past week. We were able to control her physical symptoms well but there was a deep underlying sadness deep inside. She was able to accept that she was dying, that she would be leaving behind her 18 year old daughter and her husband. That was not the cause of her upset, our counsellor went to see her at home to see if she could find out what was going on.

What was causing our patient so much anguish? She was well supported by her husband and daughter, and other family members were helping too but as our patient became less conscious her agitation and distress worsened. Was it an end of life delirium or was there something more going on? Her husband said that she was still looking for Mary.

Mary? Who is Mary?

Our daughter.

But your daughter is not called Mary.

Our older daughter.

Oh we didn’t know you had another daughter.

She was stillborn when we had her 20 years ago. We were young and didn’t have enough money to properly bury her. We only had a few hours with her before they took her away. We never found out where she was buried. We looked for the first two years but our English wasn’t as good back then, we had just moved over from the Islands. We never found her, but we’ve always missed her. Especially my wife.

There was a mystery to be solved, I had to find out where baby Mary was buried, with only her full name and date of death. I had no idea how to start the search, so I asked around my colleagues. Thanks to everyone who suggested that I contact the local council. A quick search of their website found a section where you can search for burial locations online yourself. This did not yield any results, but led me to another section of the website that allowed me to send a query email.

A few days later a real human answered, and suggested that I email someone else. Two days later I was sent a reply with a picture of a map of the cemetery with a highlighted area within which the baby had been buried. I printed out the map and our counsellor rushed out to deliver the information package to the couple. Time was of the essence as our patient was deteriorating rapidly and was in danger of losing consciousness and clarity.

Two days later our patient died peacefully at home with her gathered family, her distress had settled down once she was told that Mary had been found. The bereaved husband’s were red and swollen, but he smiled when he told us that his wife knew where to find their long-lost baby and could pick her up on their way to heaven.

Guest Post – Naomi’s Notes – Appreciation

Photo by Aude-Andre Saturnio on Unsplash

They were a big Samoan family who supported their mother’s decision to not undergo dialysis for her kidneys. She had no appetite for her favourite foods and the level of care was entering into an unknown realm.   In the distant past the caregiver had done some volunteer work for Hospice and thought this might be the answer to the problem.  

A family meeting was called and Hospice intervention was discussed.  The siblings were unanimous in their decision.  No Hospice, they viewed it as a betrayal and a failure on their part that their mother would be under the care of strangers instead of within her own family.  The siblings were having difficulty accepting the stage that their mother was at.   

Christmas came and she was very ill, she tried to make an effort to enjoy the day for her children.  Her grandchildren carried her outside into the Marquee for Christmas dinner. 

She didn’t want to spoil the day for her children.  They took her back to bed after a couple of hours.   She was too exhausted to sit up any longer.

Two days later she was in hospital, unable to communicate.  She sat and stared into space.  In the morning she woke up and pleaded to go home.  

Without consulting anyone her caregiver made the decision to request palliative care through Hospice.  By the time the discharge from hospital was completed, the hospital bed had already been delivered to her home.  Pain relief had been organised to ensure there was no breakthrough pain.

The family  had been standing alone with care of their mother and initially viewed Hospice as a  “us or them” situation. The siblings  quickly realised it was more  of a “we are on the same team” situation with a wonderful wrap around service.

The experienced nurses provided kind compassionate loving care. The family wanted  the best care for their mother and thanks to Hospice they got it.

Palace of Care – Accelerating towards the finish line

Photo by Daniel Lloyd Blunk-Fernández on Unsplash

The poor old lady had been through a lot in recent years. Cancer had treated her harshly, and had spread through major organ systems, her liver, lung, and most of the bones in her body. A cruel disease that robbed her of her independence, and dignity. The years that she had the cancer had been relentless, multiple lines of treatment including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, targeted therapy. Despite all of them the cancer continued to progress, to cause havoc, and to ravage her body, and eventually her mind.

The past month had been the worst time of all. Her final decline started with a fall, it was not clear why she fell but she ended up fracturing her wrist. A painful injury that caused her to cry in agony. Her lower arm was placed in a cast for comfort and to give it the best chance to heal. Three days later she fell again, with her other hand outstretched, causing another wrist fracture. Two forearms were now encased by fibre-glass casts. This rendered her unable to wipe her bottom or wash herself. Increasingly dependent she had trouble feeding herself, the casts were of the light weight sort, but when your illness has stolen away precious muscle, the additional weight made brushing her teeth impossible.

Continue reading

Palace of Care – Smiley

Photo by Jacob Vizek on Unsplash

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.

Continue reading

Palace of Care – Two of a kind

Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash

He was never alone when he was young, his sister would always be with him. They started off their friendship in the womb but didn’t really see each other for the first time until they came out into the light. Ah, that’s what you look like, quite similar to me, but different. I’m the oldest out of us two, even if it is only five minutes between us. The eldest is entitled to greater respect. Their siblings suddenly had two more siblings to make up the family, a little boy and a little girl.

They went to the same schools all the way through primary, intermediate and high schools, and it was only in university that their paths diverged. Ending up in different careers and then meeting their partners, always maintaining the bond of their twin-ship even across thousands of miles of ocean. The next generation would also have multiple births, he and his wife had a set of twins but unfortunately their little youngest did not survive. One of their biggest tragedies, the death of a child, so against the natural order of life. Life had to move on, they had the rest of their children to bring up. Life was busy with work, family was always emphasised as being the most important.

Children grow up so fast, and theirs became useful additions to society, good people that he had guided to adulthood. He was proud of them all, and then the grandchildren arrived to make a good life even better. Lovely young kids that enjoyed hanging out with Grandpa and Grandma, also lovely that at the end of the day they could be given back to their parents. Grandparents are there to provide good fun, but not to be the unpaid caregivers was their policy. It had worked so far. Their overseas daughter video-called them, they hadn’t seen her in person due to the effects of Covid over the past two years. She couldn’t contain her smile, she glowed when they talked to her. “Mum, dad I’m pregnant, it’s going to be twins!” Continuing the family tradition into the next generation. Things were really good.

Continue reading