Life-limiting illnesses are associated with many losses. Loss of control is one of the worst losses of all. As the condition progresses the losses continue to accumulate and some may be worse than others depending on each person. Things that were taken for granted are missed greatly and some of the losses can be especially cruel. Each of them is grieved over.
She loved to talk and would chatter away from morning to night, until the last months of her life. Her friends couldn’t recognise her voice when they phoned each other. Her voice sounded as hoarse as a young pop star before rehabilitative larynx surgery. Her breathing worsened and she wasn’t able to produce the volumes she was used to speaking at. As the weeks went by her voice played hide and seek and became harder to track down. Only a whisper was left, and even her family couldn’t understand what she said at times.
Today tragedy leaked from the internet and into my home and many millions of homes all over the world. 23-year-old Minecraft YouTuber Technoblade has died. He had written the last message to his fans only eight hours before he died. He had asked his dad to read out his message on this video. If you watch the video make sure you have some tissues at hand.
Technoblade was diagnosed with cancer in August 2021 and continued to post his popular videos even whilst undergoing various cancer treatments. With his usual generosity, he continued to share his entertaining insights with his 10 million followers.
Millions of ‘kids’ all over the world have learnt about the reality of life with cancer. Today they have experienced the death of someone who they may have gotten to know over many years of watching his videos. Grief has appeared on their drop-down menus, and they may not know how to deal with these unknown feelings. A huge reality check has occurred and the stark difference in real life is there is no respawning.
An online companion can no longer keep them company. Loss of life has led to a loss of childhood innocence. Please take care of your kids as they mourn during this sad day on the internet.
“NSW residents will have access to the highest quality care and pain management services at the end of their life, with palliative care and specialist health services to receive a record $743 million funding boost over the next five years. Premier Dominic Perrottet said the 2022-23 funding boost is on top of the $300 million the NSW Government invests each year in palliative care.”
In Aotearoa New Zealand we have to use milk and honey to make fundraising bake sale items. It is ridiculous that health care institutions have to count on sales of Chocolate Brownies and other baked goods in order to maintain free services to eligible patients in the community they serve. Literally having to sell baked goods in order to try to save staff jobs. We really do need a hand here, as we don’t want good patient care to have to depend on our baking supplies.
“Sorry Mrs Smith I can’t admit you because we have run out of flour. I would like to see you in the outpatient clinic Mr Kim but we can’t find any cocoa.”
Where is the kindness for some of the most vulnerable in our population? Palliative Care is not just about end-of-life care, but the care that is required in the time leading up to death, which might be 6 to 12 months or even longer. It is not just physical care that is required but psychosocial/spiritual/cultural care as well. The dying members of Aotearoa’s population deserve to be treated better.
“Sorry Mrs Ihaka, you can’t come become a hospice patient because we ran out of vanilla essence.”
What if hospices had to reduce services or shut down?
Who would care for all of the patients and families that we help?
Would the already over-stretched hospital sector be able to cope?
I went to see the new patient who had just arrived by ambulance. A Chinese man in his 30s who was drowsy and confused. He wasn’t able to move out of bed, and needed full assistance with all cares. He was accompanied by his wife and his father. Our patient’s English was reported as good but he wasn’t alert enough to answer many questions.
“Where are you sore?”
Hands pointed to his abdomen as he grimaced.
His father said, “He’s always considered other people before himself. That’s how he’s been since he was a young boy.”
I made some adjustments to the patient’s medication to try to ease the suffering.
His father came to speak to me, and I ushered him into a small meeting room.
He was angry and devastated. He spoke to me in Cantonese which I have some understanding of, thanks to a childhood of watching Hong Kong TV series on VHS video tapes. My usual slow process with Cantonese, is to convert it into Mandarin and then into English. I have trouble when trying to go back the other way, so don’t speak Cantonese.
He recounted the clinic appointment they had attended yesterday. They had driven from home to the Oncology Centre. His son required a wheelchair as he could not walk the long distances. The Oncology registrar that met them was Chinese and spoke Cantonese. He asked if his son could lie on the bed as he was tired from sitting up for hours to get to clinic. The registrar answered no, that the clinic was too busy today. This surprised the father who said, “Couldn’t they see how unwell he was? Then they told us bluntly, there was nothing they could do for my son. That he was dying. I was so angry that I wanted to complain, but my son wouldn’t let me, he told me to leave it, and that he wanted to go home.” I listened to him for 45 minutes and talked to him in Mandarin which was our shared second language. He had calmed down and was able to head back into his son’s room.
One of the prognostication tools that I use in my day to day palliative care practice is a new form of medical imaging. We don’t have to worry about radiation exposure no X-rays are involved. You can keep all of your earrings and piercing jewellery on as there are no magnetic fields involved. It doesn’t rely on ultrasound technology either, in fact it doesn’t even need a power source. No it isn’t the latest version of Google Glass, or the latest VR/AR technology from Meta. My patients don’t need to be referred anywhere and the scan can occur on site, with no waiting list. We don’t even need anyone to review the imaging and interpret the findings.
Not every healthcare institution is lucky enough to be as well resourced as we are. We have a special scanner which can indicate to us which patient is the most unwell in the hospice inpatient unit. A handy second opinion as prognostication is usually difficult to get right, at best it is an educated guess. We have a mobile PET scanner which makes it easier for us to assess how unwell a person is. We just need to provide it food and water, and occasional access to the local veterinarian. Yes our little CAT scanner has four legs and a tail and is named Charlie.
It was a week before Christmas, a special birthday celebration and instead of just a few candles we offered 1000 butterlamps. These were lit before the start of the ceremony which concluded with the traditional Happy Birthday song for Rinpoche.
After our shared lunch I walked slowly up the stairs to the Temple. From the bottom of the stairs in the distance I saw a young woman with her two children aged 6 and 8. I greeted her on arrival and she asked if she could light some butter lamps. She looked close to tears, and I asked her, “What’s the matter?”
“I need some help, my son died last week and I need some kind of spiritual help that’s why I came here. Is there a Lama here? I need to talk to someone.” Then the floodgate of tears was unleashed. I put my arm around her and let her cry. Her two young children looked worried. I had some home baking upstairs and asked them to bring it down for a cup of tea.
When we were alone she shared that her 23 year old son had committed suicide. His siblings were told their brother had died. They were too young to understand and she didn’t want to burden them with it. As the children came bounding down the stairs I offered them something to eat and suggested they play outside on the grass where they could still see us whilst I talked with mum. They appeared to be relieved to have another adult to talk to their mum.
Reincarnation was one of the topics of conversation in the first room this morning. Our patient was a believer and had told his wife that she would come back as a dog. Unfortunately one of their daughters had died only a few years ago. It is always difficult for parents to deal with, as it goes against nature’s order to have a child die before a parent. One of the tragedies in life that elderly people would like to avoid if at all possible. Their daughter had died but had left her traces everywhere.
She had always loved butterflies, and had grown lots of swan plants in order to provide food for her favourite Monarch butterflies. She had a keen eye for their caterpillars and could see them from a distance, their yellow, black and white lines indicating their presence. She especially loved the pupae/cocoons that would form as the caterpillars went through the biggest changes in their lives, metamorphosis. Coming out the other side of the process transformed, with a new outlook on life and the ability to fly. Looking so different in colour scheme and features. She had always loved to have butterflies around. In some cultures it is believed that butterflies are visiting dead friends and family members who have come to see you from the other side of the grave. This is a comforting thing to have your ancestors come to see how you are.
Our patient had been steadily deteriorating over the past week, and he and the family had derived some comfort in being visited by Monarch butterflies. It was thought that their late daughter/sister was visiting their father as he entered his final cocoon state, just before dying. I told them that when people die in our hospice we would affix a butterfly to the door.
I have often drawn cocoons on our patient list board to indicate that people are undergoing the final transformation in their life, the dying process. One in which everything starts to wind down, the heart, lungs and other organ functions change. A person becomes sleepier, and less clear in their mind, Nature or a higher power’s way of protecting the dying person from the full experience of dying.
“Please keep on talking to him, he can hear you, but might not be able to respond to you.” Family members were considering leaving for home to come back again soon, but I advised that he could die at anytime, and that traveling under lockdown restrictions was not as easy as usual. Probably better to hang around and support each other for a few more days.
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?
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.
It was my mother’s birthday. It was a cold, bleak winter’s day. I had put on a nice warm woolen skirt that my friend had given me which belonged to her mother. It was a bit big on the waist but was okay. I wore it to work. After school I rushed to buy some flowers to take to the cemetery before it closed.
When I arrived I was the only person there, and I quickly arranged the flowers on my parents’ grave. I stood back to admire the flowers and my thoughts turned toward my precious mother. It was starting to get dark, I felt sad as I walked back to my car. I remembered happier times on my mother’s birthday.
Suddenly I felt very cold, I thought to myself the temperature had plummeted. Then I looked down and saw that actually it was my skirt that had fallen down and I was standing in the cemetery in just my stockings with my skirt on the ground.
I started to laugh and laugh and laugh. Then I suddenly realised if anyone saw me in my stockings laughing so loud in the cemetery they would think I was having an ‘episode’ so I quickly put my skirt on and walked slowly to my car.
Then I noticed the security cameras. I raised my handbag to my face to save myself some embarrassment and walked faster to the car. I smiled to myself as I drove home as I remembered what my mother had said to me when I was young ….”Always wear a petticoat.”
I arrived around the same time as the Eat My Lunch delivery arrived. This was a local social enterprise which had been set up and the concept was that if you bought a lunch, the company would provide a lunch to a student in need. The company had delivered some school lunches to be distributed to the students. From one of the other network attendees I learnt that the school also provided breakfast for the kids as well as lunch. The lady said that she helped with the breakfast serving at least once a week. She admitted to initially being against the idea, that she had believed that children’s nutrition was supposed to be under the remit of their parents. Over time she came to the realisation that due to personal circumstances this was not always possible, and that providing children with one or two meals a day really enhanced their health, and their learning ability. Since then she happily reported to duty each week, and sometimes even filled in shifts for other people.
A family had come back recently from the Islands, the husband was unwell with metastatic cancer. The teacher asked if the patient was under hospice. I thought that service was only for Palagi – The foreigner – the white people. Despite us having been the hospice for the local area for the past 35+ years local people still did not know that we were available to help our local community members regardless of who they are. A gap that we still haven’t been able to bridge despite many years of trying to connect. What we had done over the past three decades just wasn’t working. We need to try something different. The same old, same old just doesn’t cut it any more. What else can we do to make the connection? That we are here for people just like you. We have been trying to recruit to reflect our local demographic. For our staff to look like our community, and we are hiring for inclusion to encourage diversity of thought at all levels of our organisation. People like us look after people like you, we are one and the same.
The family had lost their father and husband due to a brutal act of violence at the local train station. His life was cruelly stolen from them, and the grief was too much for them to handle. They were lost, set adrift in a cruel sea of grief, with no land in sight, no hope of rescue. Every week they would visit the site of his death, the mother and the children, would weep and could not move on with their lives. This important local community hub held onto their agony with an iron grip. A local amenity that could not be avoided, became not just a place to catch a bus or a train, but a deva-station. Transporting them to a painful past, a tormented present and an uncertain future.