I always say that people can hear us even if they are in a coma. I believe they can hear us even when they appear to be dying. The family in the room wanted him to hold on. His son was on his way from overseas. Due to arrive that evening. I’m not sure how long it had been since they had seen each other. Likely it had been a while as COVID flight restrictions had meant that many families had been separated for much longer than usual. He wanted to see his son. His son was already on the plane somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of miles away, 33000 feet up in the air. Everyone was willing the plane to arrive faster.
I wasn’t sure if the son would make it in time to see his father. My patient was in his bed, not able to respond to any of the voices in the room. I counted the pauses in his breathing. 10 seconds, 11 seconds, 12 seconds, Gassssp. The longer the pauses the closer a person is to dying. My best-educated guess was that he only had hours left to live. I knew that his son was still at least seven hours distance away. I didn’t want to scare them but they needed to know of my concerns. No surprises.
“I’m not sure if your Dad can hold on for much longer, I think he might only have hours to go before he dies. He might not be able to see your brother. He will try and hold on for as long as he can, but his body is too weak. He knows that his son is on the way to see him, and he’ll try his very best, but he might not be able to keep on going for so long. There’s nothing I can do to keep him alive. It’s up to a higher power than us humans.”
I spent the next seven hours attending to work tasks. Seeing other patients. Discussing other patients. Writing emails to organize things for patients. Phone calls related to patients. I wondered if my patient would be able to hold on for much longer. I knew he would be trying his best, but he had no reserves left. The cancer had taken away his precious energy. It was removing both quantity and quality of life. It was beyond the control of sheer willpower, no matter how strong the person was. I couldn’t extend his life, no one in the world could, no matter how much money they had. They wouldn’t be able to buy him extra lifetime. I could try to make him more comfortable. I would try to reduce the pain that had been gnawing at his leg for so long. I would try to calm the distress revealed by his furrowed brow. To ease the worries of his gathered family members. I would try my best to make him more comfortable. To look after his family. That’s what I could do. To give him the best chance of seeing his son, or at least to be seen by him again.
Before I left for my holiday I turned on the automatic replies. Correspondents needed to know that I would be away on leave for a fortnight. Not a long break but enough to recharge and unwind. It takes at least a week to really start relaxing. In the past, I had been used to pushing hard and living on adrenaline that if I relaxed too deeply my immune system would crash and I’d catch a cold. These days I make sure I have something to do each day, a task of some sort that needs to be done. Nothing too stressful but something to keep me from relaxing completely. The tightrope balancing act of modern-day life. Rest but not too much too fast.
It had been a while since I’d been on leave. Also been a while since I’ve had to say goodbye to patients that I thought I wouldn’t ever see again. People who I thought would no longer be alive by the time I returned. Some of them I’d only just met in the last few weeks, others I had known for many months. Some of the recipients knew what I meant without me having to say anything more. Others had different ideas about their situation and believed they would still be alive to see in the New Year 2024, let alone the current one. I also said goodbye to the patients’ family members as well.
Goodbyes in palliative care are usually final. Most of the time you will never see the patient or their family members ever again. In fact, each interaction you have with people you deal with may be the very last time you see them. You have to make sure you don’t leave things in a bad way, as you may never get the chance to sort things out. You don’t want what may be one of the final interactions for the other human being to be a poor one.
It’s not like what you see on TV. In real life, resuscitation doesn’t work so well. I’ve worked on many cardiac arrest calls in the past and almost 100% were not successful. In those few successful resuscitations, the person was left physically and mentally damaged. With your burden of disease, the chances of a successful resuscitation would be close to zero. The first thing they teach us in medical school is, “first do no harm.” If something that we are considering doing has questionable benefits but likely harm, we really need to think about it carefully. You have so much going on already, and the last thing we want to do is to make your situation worse. Some of our treatments could worsen things with little chance of benefit. If your heart or lungs were to stop working, we would not be able to bring you back. We would not perform CPR as it would cause you harm with no benefit at all. I don’t think you are at risk of having your heart or lungs stop just yet, but I have to be clear with you as to what to expect. I don’t want there to be any surprises between us. It’s not over yet. So let’s focus on making the most of your time. Let’s concentrate on something that will help you, treatments that can decrease your suffering, and make you more comfortable. Is there something that you have always wanted to do that you haven’t done yet? Is there something nice that we could help organise?
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.
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.