Bedside Lessons – 14. Stuck in a moment

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By the time of his admission he’d been on the steroids for six months, to counter swelling caused by brain metastases. His wife had stopped nursing at the GP practice in order to care for him.

He had been deteriorating in recent weeks and could no longer be reasoned with.

We couldn’t talk to him, he just stared at us blankly when we asked him questions, his wife had to answer for him.

She described him sitting on the bed eating mandarins spitting the seeds out onto the carpet.
She said that he would be horrified if he knew what he had been doing, as he was the tidiest person she knew and he had always been house proud.

The worst thing that had happened was after he had urinated on the bedroom floor having mistaken it for the toilet. He then slipped on his own urine and fell to the floor, luckily he did not hurt himself badly.

I asked if he had any seizures. She said that at times she had seen his arm going rigid, and then he seemed to be even less responsive. She had thought of seizures, but there was no jerking. She had mentioned it to the Oncologists but they had not looked into it any further.

I was intrigued by this. Could it be non-convulsive status epilepticus – repeated ongoing seizures without convulsions leading to decreased consciousness? His wife agreed to a trial of anti-seizure medication. If the medication didn’t make any difference we would stop it.

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Palace of Care – It ain’t easy being green

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She had been told that she would die soon, twice before, but she continued to outlive her prognosis. Stress levels were high, as this time she felt more unwell. Pain was worse and even her lifesaver wasn’t covering her symptoms.

She had complete faith in it, and often credited it as having saved her life. Before she had discovered it she had tried many legal medications but none of them had worked, or had produced intolerable side effects. She had never liked going to the doctor and preferred to have plant-based treatments from her naturopath. The green stuff had calmed her down, with minimal side effects. It had allowed her to go back to work, and she was able to be a mother again.

Being diagnosed with metastatic cancer had really been challenging, but extra doses of the natural product had helped to keep things calm. In recent weeks she had been admitted to hospital twice and was told that she was about to die twice of something called DIC (Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation.) The doctors had explained this as her clotting system going crazy, causing blood clots in her blood vessels, which were painful as blood supply was cut off to affected areas. A dangerous situation as clotting factors ran out, it meant that she was at great risk of bleeding. Caused by her cancer, and with no cure, hence she had been written off by her doctors twice before, and now it was third time lucky.

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Palace of Care – The Show Must Not Go On

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Hey, welcome to our hospice.

I know that you put on the show for your friends and social media, but you don’t need to do that with us. You don’t have to be all right when you are feeling anything but.

We need to see the real you in order to be able to really help you.

We know how strong and tough you are.

Please don’t use up your precious energy telling us what you think we want to hear.

I will be honest with you but I want you to ask for help when you need it.

We will always use as little medication as we can, but we do not want you to put up with discomfort, we don’t want you to struggle.

We are really keen to help you, if you’ll let us.

Can you do that?

What would make this place feel less like a hospital for you?

Please bring in your own stuff to decorate the walls.

You have made brave decisions recently to stop treatment, which I fully support.

I’d be happy to explain things to your partner when they come in.

Listen to your body, don’t push yourself. Rest when you need to, think of it as a recharge. Ask for help when you need to.

Save your energy for nicer things, more important activities, like spending time with your partner.

If there is anything you disagree with, please let us know.

We’d like to give you back some control of your situation, completing the advance care plan will help.

We are on your side and will be guided by what you want, or don’t want.

Thanks for giving us a go.

Bedside Lessons – 10. Freedom to Choose

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Working in the community palliative care team I don’t meet in person most of the patients that are under our team’s care. I often have to provide advice for people that I have never met and have to count on my staff members’ assessments as the basis of knowledge of each patient. This is how our specialist support is provided from a distance, this allows me to have about 380 patients under my consultant remote control supervision at any time. Often I will provide advice which will be conveyed to the patient and their family doctor to be actioned.

This is the story of someone I never actually met but whom I provided advice on, an elderly Jewish lady who was a Holocaust survivor. I never found out which concentration camp she had lived through but somehow she had stayed alive when many had not. When she was young all control of her life had been taken away from her. Separated from her family whom she never saw again, made to endure hellish conditions, tattooed and emotionally scarred for life, she some how made it through her ordeal. She moved to New Zealand, married a local man, had children and grand-children and a rich and rewarding family life.

Recently her health had taken a turn for the worse and she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer with spread to her brain, causing headaches, and seizures. Despite having had radiotherapy treatment and high dose corticosteroid treatment her symptoms worsened. She was still clear in her thinking but was at risk of this deteriorating soon.

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I think therefore I am? – It’s down to you now, you wanna be free?*

*From Cliff Richard’s We don’t talk anymore: https://www.musixmatch.com/lyrics/Cliff-Richard/We-Don-t-Talk-Anymore-1987-Digital-Remaster

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In Aotearoa/New Zealand the End of Life Choice Act 2019 will be enacted into law on Sunday 7th November 2021. Written in the voice of someone who is considering accessing assisted dying is a further conversation that they might have with NZ Hospice/Palliative Care, if only they would deign to listen.

The last time we talked I was not at my best, I was angry, upset and scared. I’ve had time to reflect and have looked at things from some other viewpoints. This is not an apology because I need you to see me as I am, I don’t want to have to pretend in front of you. I need you to understand how I feel, and what I am going through.

Thank you for not running away, like the others did. You said that you have similarly emotionally intense conversations all of the time, and that you have been trained to be able to handle them. You certainly used it to take the opportunity to get to know me better, and to explore my fears.

That being said,  I shouldn’t have sworn at you, that is not me. I am usually much better at controlling myself. My anger was not just directed at you, I’ve  been through many frustrating interactions during this illness journey, and it all just exploded the last time we met.

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Bedside Lessons – 6. Week Two – A hard promise to keep

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A week later and I had to keep my promise, to prove that they were not just empty words.

Thursday

Im sorry that things are changing so quickly, that you are losing even more control.

Groan.

The reason that you have been vomiting is that the cancer has caused a blockage in your guts, it’s really bad.

Is it going to get better?

We can try a medication which might dry up the vomiting, but I don’t think the blockage will clear. This is a dangerous situation, you probably won’t recover from this.

Could you decrease the pain relief? It’s making me too sleepy. I want to be awake for my son.

Okay, but if your pain gets bad, we might have to go up again.

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Bedside Lessons – 5. Week One – Here’s the deal

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Thursday

I want you to be really honest with me, has the pain relief worked?

Yeah, I think it has, I’m moving better. I had four hours of sleep last night which is pretty good for me.

I’d like to increase your pain relief from 25 to 35.

Could we make it 30? I don’t want to be too sleepy.

Okay sure. If you disagree with my plan you let me know and we’ll change it. I will be guided by what you want or don’t want. That’s a sweet tattoo on your arm, is that your son?

Yeah, he was a cute baby. I became a dad when I was 20. My son will be five in two months, I hope that I’ll be able to see him start school.

Friday

Hey I saw you walking around before, how you doing?

Good man. I had the best sleep in the last two years. No pain.

Really?

Yeah, I feel good.

That’s great, if this keeps up we can start talking about going home soon.

It’s Fathers’ Day on Sunday.

Yeah, that’s right, we’ll see how you go, if you are still good, we’ll aim for home Sunday.

Monday

I just wanted to say see ya later.

Thanks man, for everything.

My pleasure bro, I wish you well.

[Fist Bump] [Smile with eyes, with mask on emoji]

Lessons learnt:

It is important to be honest with your patients, as you need to build their trust in you.

Allowing patients to share in decision making helps to empower them. Give them back some control, in an illness situation in which so much control has been stolen from them.

Make it clear that they can disagree with any of your treatment plans, and that you will listen to them and that within reason you will adjust appropriately according to their wishes.

Say what you mean, then do what you say.

Bedside Lessons – 4. The Father

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

The old Chinese man was admitted with uncontrolled pain and breathing distress. His wife and son doted upon him and were worried about him as he had been rapidly worsening over the past weeks. He had previously had fluid from around his lung drained in hospital the other month, which had helped his breathing. His symptoms were controlled quickly but he still felt exhausted.

Even speaking to him in his native Mandarin Chinese it was difficult to tell what he really wanted. He appeared to know that things were worsening. It was just before New Zealand’s general election, and the End of Life Choice Act 2019 was being considered for enactment via National Referendum. He told me that he had already cast his vote and was in support of having the option of assisted dying. His son quickly told him that even if it was voted in that it could not be accessed until another 12 months.

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Bedside Lessons – 1. The Magyar

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When we met, I had just started my second year of specialist training in Palliative Medicine. I was keen to use my new-found skills and knowledge in the hospice inpatient setting. When I assessed him I was sure that I could successfully treat his pain and that I could decrease his suffering. Management plans swirled in my head and I started to offer him strong analgesics in order to cover his severe pain. I talked to him in an excited manner about Morphine, Oxycodone, Methadone, Gabapentin, Nortriptyline, Fentanyl. He was not interested and would only take Paracetamol. Hmm, maybe we’ll try again tomorrow.

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