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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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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Bedside Lessons – 12. Zero Degrees Kelvin

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Times of crisis can bring out the best or the worst in people. This is a tale from the dark side.

Before she became ill everything seemed to be perfect. Happily married to the love of her life, they were proud of their three adult children. The eldest already married and had produced the perfect grandchild. Second child a beautiful daughter who was talented, and about to enter the workforce. Youngest son, mummy’s boy, had started university and was on his way to doing something useful with his life. The family portrait was beautiful, three generations of the family all dressed in white shirts and blue denim jeans. What a beautiful family, united in their faith and religion. Stalwarts of the church, the example that the congregation all worked towards becoming. The golden family.

Illness arrived and caused major distress. The mother had always had alternative views to healthcare, had wanted naturally based treatments or no treatments at all. Unfortunately due to metastatic cancer she had to consider many different treatments, and many different medications to treat her symptoms. This soon became a torment for her, challenging her core beliefs. She tried to handle her pain as much as she could but it was so deep, so pervasive, so severe that even her iron will started to rust, to bend beyond it’s inherent structural integrity.

She was admitted in a pain crisis, having not slept for 10 days, woken by pain, exhausted with her family at their wit’s end as well. A highly distressing situation for them all. The facade of perfection had also started to crumble.

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Bedside Lessons – 7. DNA

Labels are easily applied to people but are not always appropriate. DNA – Did not attend is one of the commonest labels that can be given to patients and often no attempt to check their actual circumstances is actually made. DNA is a label that sticks to someone and can bias clinicians against patients without allowing them a chance to explain themselves.

Here’s a story about a patient that I met on a home visit many years ago which changed my thinking about the DNA label and labeling in general.

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