It had taken months to earn their trust. I had to show a willingness to listen. To demonstrate flexibility in shared decision-making. Each clinic visit involved negotiations. I thought I could make them more comfortable with my medications. They did not want to try my medications. I pushed, and they pushed back. I pulled, and they pulled away. I made lots of suggestions, but most of them were shot down. The interactions were always polite, but it was difficult to engage.
I was sure the treatments were making them feel worse, but they would’ve done anything to live longer, no matter what the personal cost. 12 cycles of chemotherapy meant eight months of being imprisoned mostly at home. Unable to venture far from the toilet because of the almost constant diarrhoea. Always accompanied by crampy abdominal pain, day and night. Long days and longer, lonely nights. There was no way to rest properly apart from the few days between cycles when they’d feel almost normal again. Then it was time to start the next cycle.
They had planned a trip with their family. They wanted the children to travel with them to far-off lands. They wanted to create a memory of an exciting family trip. The journey was booked for six months. I was worried about our patient living through the next four months let alone six months. I talked about smaller trips closer to home. The children just want to spend time with their parents. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Short day trips would be just as memorable. The children missed their parent’s cooking. Their other parent didn’t cook as well despite their best efforts. The kids longed for a taste of normality.
Despite my best efforts sometimes people just aren’t interested in what I have to sell. I am trying to work in the best interests of the patient. I want to make them as comfortable as possible. If there is pain I want to alleviate it as much as possible. If there is breathlessness I want to do something about it. Untreated distress in a patient will lead to distress in their family members. Similar to the care philosophy in Paediatrics, in Palliative Care practice you need to consider the patient, and their loved ones as the unit of care.
The duty of care is to the patient above all but consideration for their loved ones is essential. They will be the ones who will survive this episode of care. Reduction of their distress needs to be considered secondary to reduction of patient distress. Most of the time we will all be on the same page. The patient wants their distressing symptom relieved, as do their loved ones, as do the clinicians. Everyone is in agreement and things are relatively simple.
This is not always the case though. At times I identify suffering in a patient and I will recommend a course of treatment. All treatments will have side effects, with a lot of the medications we use sleepiness is a common side effect. The patient may not want to feel sleepy and will try to put up with the distressing symptom themselves. Or their family will want them to be as alert as possible, which may come at the cost of comfort.
He was admitted because of uncontrolled nausea and vomiting. We thought it might be a malignant bowel obstruction but his bowel sounds were normal. He would vomit at least three times a day. Strangely the vomiting didn’t seem to bother him, in fact at times he and his wife seemed happy after he vomited. We weren’t sure of what was causing his nausea and vomiting, his blood tests showed evidence of dehydration, but there was nothing obviously reversible going on to explain his symptoms. He looked unwell and after a few days on our ward he appeared more gaunt. Our attempts at controlling his symptoms were not working, we hadn’t solved the mystery yet, until we noticed the half-filled blue glass bottle on his table. “Keep out of direct sunlight.”