I was asked to speak to the patient’s son. His mother was unwell and deteriorating. Her son was not medically trained but was forthright in his opinions. He thought his mother had simple constipation and all she needed was simple laxatives. He was more than assertive in his requests for treatment, taking a more directional approach.
“Look, I’m not telling you what to do, but…”
“Actually, you are telling me what to do. I need to tell you what I need to do for your mother. She’s very unwell, and is not just constipation going on. I think she has a bowel obstruction caused by the cancer. It is causing severe pain, nausea and vomiting. I am very worried about her. I have seen her condition worsening every day. I don’t think she is going to get better.”
“You mean she won’t recover?”
“She is trying her best to do so, but I think she probably won’t be able to. She’s too unwell.”
“What can you do for her?”
“We can try to make her more comfortable. We’re going to have to use injectable medications as I’m worried she won’t be able to swallow soon. Do you have any questions?”
“No, please do your best for my mother. She raised us all, and she always worked so hard. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. Please look after her. “
Our patient was dying of end-stage cancer, it had spread throughout his body causing significant pain. He had been having trouble passing urine, over the last two days. This had worsened and our ultrasound bladder scan showed urinary retention with a collection of 1.5L. One of the more painful conditions that people can have. The bladder’s walls are elastic but are not meant to stretch that far. Many nerve endings were firing off pain signals, our patient writhed in his bed. His wife and daughter were distressed seeing their lovely man in such discomfort.
The doctor on call was called in at 1 am after the nurse had tried twice to catheterise our patient without success. The urinary catheter could not pass through a blockage despite the nurse trying all the usual tricks. The doctor attempted catheterisation three times before calling me in. I arrived just after 2 am and decided that I would have to perform a more invasive procedure. The patient was too distressed, he was too unwell to be transferred to the hospital. I would have to drain his bladder using a needle, something I had never done before in my 20 years of medical practice.
In his professional life he was used to taking charge, of taking control and at times this bled into his personal life as well. His wife’s mother was unwell with widely spread cancer, she had been admitted into the hospice for symptom control of pain, breathlessness, and nausea. He had always been close to her right from their first meeting, he was probably closer to her than he was to his own parents, and even called her Mum. She had always been there for her children and their partners, and he really wanted to be there for her. He wanted to make sure that she was treated right, and he had a small inkling that his manner might come across as intimidating, but that was useful in police work. He just wanted to make sure that Mum was being well looked after, it was what she deserved.
She was a Pasifika lady in her early 60s, with end-stage cancer to her liver, lungs, and many bones. She was the frailest patient in our inpatient unit and I was worried that she might be dying. She was well cared for by her family who were always with her. Her husband of similar age, two daughters and a son-in-law, who I found out was a police officer. He had already caused a bit of a disturbance in the unit as he had spoken in an aggressive manner to some of our nurses, and was impatient. The family were all tired, worried about our patient, and stress levels were high. The family members all seemed to defer to the policeman who had taken on the role of family spokesman. The patient was fatigued but had not slept much in the past days because of uncontrolled pain. The first time I saw her I thought to myself that I wouldn’t be surprised if she crashes quickly.