Palace of Care – Good Enough?

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We thought she still had weeks left to live. We didn’t know it would only be hours. She died suddenly and the family asked the nurses to perform CPR – cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The nurses calmly and gently refused. They knew it wouldn’t work, she had been too unwell. It would only cause her further harm with no possibility of benefit. Her distraught family’s tears flowed freely.

When we were informed of the sudden death we were surprised but not shocked. We knew she was dying but had not thought it would be so fast. There was nothing more we could do for our patient. She had died. The care package needed to be directed towards the survivors, her family members. We came in to talk to them, to try to explain what we thought had happened. We wanted to try to calm their distress, to try to prevent complicated grief.

We expressed how sorry we were for their loss. We told them we didn’t know exactly what had happened. We thought it was due to overwhelming disease. Nature could not be controlled by us mere humans. It was too much for even the strongest of women to handle, even with the greatest level of loving family support. She had tried her best to hold on to life, but it was not to be. The family accepted our explanations and uncertainty. They did not want her to have any further investigations. There had been too many over the last months.

They said she had loved it in our inpatient unit. She had felt well looked after. She knew we were all trying our best to help her out, and the family too. They laughed when they recounted a story about their loved one’s ultra direct communication style. They hugged us as they thanked us for the care provided. We wished we could’ve done more.

They asked if they could all stay with her overnight. They needed to look after her as per their cultural traditions. They needed to look after each other as a family. It had likely been a long time since the siblings had all stayed the night together with their mother. It was their last chance to all be together as a complete family, as tomorrow she would rest in her final bed. We made a compassionate exception as the family needed to do their duty. They also needed to start their healing process. Bedding and more space were prepared by our staff, as if by magic.

It can never be perfect in palliative care, if it was perfect she wouldn’t have been sick, she wouldn’t have died. Had we done enough? We were trying to do our best to make her comfortable before she died, and we were never going to stop trying. We had listened to her and her family regarding what she wanted and didn’t want. She had died suddenly but peacefully. The family were sad, but they were not destroyed. Life would go on. We had done what we could. We had done good enough.

Palace of Care – Days?!

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How much time has she got left doctor?

She likely only has days left to live.


Yes, probably just days.


Yes, it could actually be much shorter if she deteriorates faster.

Thanks. We have things we need to prepare.

No matter how long she has got left we will do our best to keep her comfortable.

Thank you.

She’s been an important part of you and your children’s lives.

Yes. It’s hard, it’s the first time we’ve been through something like this.

We’re going to get your mother through this, we’re going to get you all through this. If you have any worries or concerns please share them with us. Our job is to take as much stress out of this situation as possible. Please let us know if there is anything we can help you with.

Thank you. We brought you some cakes.

You brought three cakes, that’s very generous of you.

Yes, one for each of the nursing shifts.

That’s nice of you to think of each of the shifts.

The staff have looked after us all well. Thank you.

That’s what we are here for. We’ll see you later, try and get some rest when you can. Thanks again for the cakes.

You’re welcome, see you later.

Palace of Care – Before You Go

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Yesterday afternoon she told her story well. She recounted her recent bouts of illness which had culminated in her last hospital admission. She was keen to go home as soon as possible. The way she looked it appeared she had a good chance of making it there. The plan was to optimise her symptom control and then discharge home would be considered. She was in good spirits and was glad to have arrived in our inpatient unit.

The first night was disturbed by worsened pain, agitation and confusion. When we reviewed her the following morning, she was very unwell. This once talkative lady was unable to respond to voice. We diagnosed that she was dying. Generations of the family were asked to gather together to say goodbye to our patient as her time appeared to have shortened. Her medications were adjusted to maintain comfort.

I was surprised when her son told me that his mother had woken up and was talking to her family again. This was in time for the visit by her grandchildren. She enjoyed seeing them, hugging them and talking to them during a nice afternoon. By the evening she was exhausted and drifted off into another restless sleep. She never woke up again.

My science couldn’t explain how this dying lady had gathered what remained of her limited energy in order to be there for her visiting grandchildren. The last hurrah or the final rally is something I have witnessed too many times in palliative care settings. It really is a thing. A person can wake up from a coma to provide a final gift to their loved ones. Yet another mystery we often encounter at the end of life.

Palace of Care – And Then There Was One

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Sometimes when situations feel stuck a nudge may be required. A change in mindset or plans may be necessary to escape limbo. Patients who may have been in relative stability might be prepared for discharge. Things cannot continue as they are. Normality can only be paused for so long. Children continue to grow up. School holidays start and finish. Jobs have to be worked. Life has to go on.

We had expected her to deteriorate within days. No one could have predicted she would be alive for weeks let alone enjoying some form of quality of life. She had outlived all prognostication attempts by many weeks and almost months. How? Fantastic support from family and friends. Good palliative care was directed by her wishes. We had promised to listen, to allow her to be the driver. We had kept the promise. To continue her steroid medication while she still enjoyed quality of life, as defined by her. We would wean the medication off if it wasn’t working any more if intolerable suffering occurred, if she was dying.

She made the most of each day. Eating food, drinking her husband’s coffee, and having visits from friends. Visits home for family meals and her favourite drinks including world-famous beers and gins. The four-legged family members had missed their mother so much. She enjoyed time in our garden and often caught some rays in the courtyard. Solid plans were being made for longer, overnight leaves at home. Her husband had been trained to deal with problems that might crop up at home. Everything was being prepared for more time at home.

We had stopped being surprised by her long lack of deterioration. When the final deterioration occurred it came as a shock. A slight cough turned into a likely chest infection. Her swallowing ability had fluctuated markedly over the past weeks. A mis-swallow had allowed food or drink to be breathed into her lungs. This aspiration led to pneumonia. We offered antibiotics and hospital admission. They knew she didn’t want to go back to a hospital, a place of great stress for all of them. No antibiotics, thank you.

When it was clear she was dying they wanted to take her home. They were willing to accept the risk of dying en route as they knew she wanted to die at home. Mission accomplished. She spent her final hours with her family, furry ones included. Mixed in with the many tears of sadness were some scant droplets of relief. She was here until she wasn’t.

Rest in peace dear lady.

Palace of Care – Waiting For?

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Was he waiting for his brother to come and visit him?

Despite trying his best he couldn’t come as his visa was not granted. The best they could do was to arrange a goodbye via video call. Not in any way a replacement but better than no contact at all. The too common experience of extra suffering caused by geographical distance. The brutal trade-off that all immigrants have to face when they leave home. They move in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their families. The costs of separation might have been considered but do not sink in until tragic events occur. An ocean away can feel like a galaxy away. The unfulfilled wish of being there in a time of need. Reunions depend on the whim of bureaucrats who, at times, are felt to be heartless, lacking in empathy and disconnected from the human race.

What was different in the past week? How did he hold on? Why?

During his dying phase, he had spent more time with his ex-wife and daughters, than he had in many years. One of his biggest regrets was not spending more time with them before he had become unwell. The events preceding the divorce had stuffed it all up. During his final admission, there was always someone staying with him, 24 hours a day. A sensible roster had been set up between his wife and daughters as they held their combined vigil. Was he trying to extend his precious time with his ladies for as long as possible through sheer willpower? Maybe. He was beyond asking. We could never know for sure.

He died last night, in the presence of his family. He had outlived our prognostication by many days.

Rest in Peace Sir.

Palace of Care – Healing in the Hospice

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I’ve had relatives who’ve come in before but they never made it out, they died after a couple of weeks. When he was asked to come in we were pretty nervous, we didn’t quite know what to expect. Yeah, we were scared. We had to do something though. His tummy pain was real bad, but it was his anxiety and panic attacks that were the worst. He’d freak out and I didn’t know what to do. I’d freak out too. His pain was controlled after a couple of days in hospice, then his panic attacks settled down. This was despite having received the worst news ever, that he had cancer.

We didn’t know they were looking for cancer during the last three months. We thought they were trying to find out why he was constipated. We didn’t know why he had lost 30kg of weight. He had always loved food but then he had no appetite. The poos kept on changing, sometimes hard, sometimes soft, sometimes with blood. They stuck a tube up his bum to have a look but they had to stop because the sedation they gave him almost killed him. It was a shock when the hospice doctors told us that the other doctors thought he had cancer.

The other great thing about being here in the hospice is that it is neutral ground. It was safe for him and his ‘niece’ to meet up here. You allowed us to have some space and they were able to start talking. Yesterday they ended up just going to a cafe together and they sorted out the issue between them that had kept them apart for decades. He’d done some stuff in the past. He’d done his time. Coming here to hospice allowed them to heal. Deep healing of the spirit happened yesterday. He came back a changed man. A father and daughter were able to connect with each other, to start to build a relationship that had been broken for years. It was good for the grandchildren to see this happen. It’s good for the whole family. We couldn’t have done it without what you have provided us here. It means so much to us. Thank you so much.

Palace of Care – He’ll Be Right Mate

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I didn’t know what to do. He tried the spray and it helped his breathing and panic a bit. Then he needed it again and again. He wanted to call an ambulance and go to the hospital. I didn’t think that would help much. They might’ve taken him to hospital and then eventually back to the hospice.

When he couldn’t catch his breath he freaked out. He started panicking. He was too scared to go to sleep. He was scared he was about to die. I’ve never seen him so scared. I stayed up with him through the night. We’re both pretty tired.

He’s felt safer since coming back to hospice. He’s more comfortable because there’s always people who know what to do. I didn’t know what else to do. I’m not sure if I could handle giving him injections. It was stressful at home.

I just want him to get better. If his breathing was better then he wouldn’t panic. Maybe then he could get to sleep at night instead of during the day. He went outside and felt a bit better in the cold. Having the window open helped.

You can make him better right? If you get the right medications then he will be back to normal again. Then everything will be fine. Just have to get the right medications, then he’ll be right again.

Palace of Care – The Last Dance

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Thank you for taking him home, that would’ve made him really happy.

As soon as he got home he wanted to go back to hospice. He really likes it here. When he was last here he was dancing with the nurses and singing as well.

How did it go at home?

It was hard. He didn’t know what he wanted. Things kept on changing quickly. We couldn’t cope with him at home. He was very confused at times and demanding and angry.

Unfortunately, the people you are closest to can be treated the most harshly when people are very unwell.

Is he in a coma?


But he’s still able to move at times, and he opens his eyes but doesn’t really interact.

Yes, that can happen. He is deeply unconscious but may still be able to move. At other times he might be more wakeful, with lots of ups and downs. This is normal for dying people. He might have only days left to live, but it could be much shorter. No matter how much time is left we will try to make it as comfortable as possible.

Thank you.

Palace of Care – Time Is Short

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I don’t think she has much time left.

I think you’re right. She has deteriorated a lot, even overnight.

She tried to talk to us around 4 am, she recognised us but went back to sleep. I think she can still hear us.

I think so too. She will be comforted by hearing your voices. To know that you are looking after each other. Otherwise, she will worry.

That’s my sister, always worried about everyone else. She was starting to get confused in the last two days.

That can happen when you are really unwell, we see it all the time. We’re going to make some changes to her medications to calm everything down. I want to keep her calm and peaceful like she is now.

Good, that’s all we want.

We’re going to get her through this. We’re going to get you both through this as well.

Thank you.

That’s why we wanted to give her some more time here. She’s in the right place, we are going to look after her. You two need to be the family members now, let us do the caregiving.


Please get some rest when you can and let us know if you need anything.

Palace of Care – No False Hope

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I couldn’t provide them with what they wanted. It felt like every time I went in there I had more bad news to share. They wanted me to say something different. They wanted me to suggest other treatments and other tests. I had nothing new to offer. All the stones had already been turned over. They were willing to take even false hope, but I was an unwilling vendor. I didn’t want to burst their bubble, but I felt like I needed to.

They had tried everything humanly possible to stay alive. They had pushed for tests and treatments and they had managed to keep going for years longer than most people. The more lines of cancer treatments you go through the lower the likelihood of success. They were up to the final line of treatment. Treatment could not be provided without significant side effects occurring. A difficult balancing act. A costly negotiation to take part in. A trade-off had to occur.

If it was all about effort expended they would have lived for many more years. They had tried harder than most people could have. After years of triumph, they were finally faced with their ultimate defeat. They wanted to stay active, to continue doing something. They didn’t want to just wait for death. There was nothing else to be done. The best treatments we had might’ve improved comfort and quality of life, but could not affect the quantity of life. The limit of Western Medicine had been reached.