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.
“The Oncologist told us they would only live for another three weeks.”
“When was that?”
“Three months ago.”
“The good care you and your sibling provided kept them going. Now they are tired, and their body can’t handle the cancer anymore.”
“We are at breaking point ourselves. We can’t sleep well, and the tears keep coming.”
“You are both very close to your parent, you have looked after them well.”
“The last months had been hard, but the last weeks have been terrible. We have had to help with everything.”
“They are exhausted. Yesterday they told me they thought their time was short, that death would happen soon. I agree with them. We will get them through this, and get you and your sibling through this too.”
“The phlegm is causing them distress, and the breathing. They couldn’t relax last night. The medications helped briefly but then they couldn’t lie still. I kept awake too. They keep on asking for water, but it will go into the lung. Their swallowing is getting worse.”
“If it will make them feel better they can have some water. It won’t make things much worse but might bring them some comfort. If they developed an infection I wouldn’t treat it, as it might be gentler to die of the infection rather than dying of cancer. We’ll change the medications to make them more comfortable.”
“Please do, make them comfortable. Too much suffering already. They were always proud of their appearance but in the last weeks, no energy to do anything.”
“They’ve hated not being able to do what they want?”
“Yes, they even asked about assisted dying. They’ve always been so independent, not being able to do anything for themselves has been awful.”
“Natural death is going to happen soon, they wouldn’t make it through the assisted dying assessment process. They’re likely going to fall asleep soon. We’ll keep them comfortable.”
“Thank you doctor, can we stay here in the hospice.”
“Of course, you all need to stay here, we’ll look after you all.”
I virtually attended a self-care workshop in Canberra today. I prioritise and practise self-care daily as outlined here. I still found it good to have a refresher on the importance of self-care for homo sapiens in general, but especially so for us palliative care practitioners.
The presenters pointed out the great resources available from Palliative Care Australia which have been produced by Palliverse’s own Dr Jason Mills. The downloadable PDF can help you design your self-care plan. I think all palliative care practitioners could have this as part of their personal development plans. The work we do is different, we come face to face with other people’s death and dying several times a day in clinical practice.
The session on self-compassion was another useful reminder to me, as I had completed a six-day self-compassion-focused wellness retreat three years ago. During this, I learnt to speak to myself as if I was speaking to a good friend who needed my considerate help. Our inner self-talk can be too harsh and over-critical. We are often too hard on ourselves and this can be self-destructive.
An Aotearoa/New Zealand approach to self-care would need to cover domains of the NZ Maori Health Model – Te Whare Tapa Wha. Wairua – Spiritual, Tinana – Physical, Hinengaro – Emotional, Whanau – Familial/Social. Training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) has been an addition (some would say addiction) to my self-care practices and it helps me to cover all four health walls. Physical exertion has led to muscle gain and weight loss. BJJ has taught me to be more emotionally resilient and I feel I can handle more of everything. Regular exposure to the painful stimulus of joint locks and choke attempts has provided small doses of suffering. I can control myself in uncomfortable positions and it has helped with ego control. It is okay to tap out when you are beaten. I feel I have joined a family or community of practice and have befriended a culturally and age diverse bunch of people. In terms of spirituality, I feel more connected to my body as during BJJ training you have to be totally present in your body and attuned to what your opponent is doing. It can be a real escape from the daily grind of the rest of your life. If your mind wanders during a rolling session before you know it your joints might be in painful positions or your neck is being choked.
Yes, last week I did break my finger tip extensor tendon and have to wear a finger splint for 12 weeks. I returned to training this week and have been modifying my approach to protect the healing fingertip.
The chronic illness had been there for twenty years and had disrupted every aspect of their life. It had caused a lot of pain. It was finally diagnosed only four years ago. Treatments were started but never made a significant difference. The effects of many long years of untreated illness were permanent. Somehow despite all of their travails sense of humour was maintained and they had even maintained gainful employment. Others would have been changed into photographic negative images of themselves, but not this person.
They prayed to their God for a way out of the seemingly never-ending suffering. Some years later the prayers were answered in the form of inoperable cancer which at the time of diagnosis had already spread throughout their body. Actual relief was the response when they were given the bad news. That’s how bad quality of life had been. They had considered accessing the Assisted Dying service but thought it would be against their religion. Their end was in sight, cancer would provide a natural escape from suffering, but it still felt far too slow…
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.
I was worried he would die before the day was over. When I first met him he was hunched over in bed, his jaw clenched tight, his upper teeth were grinding into his lower teeth. His breaths short ragged grasps. In extremis, with tears dripping onto the tousled folds of the bedclothes. His family’s faces replaced by masks of terror. The tension in the room was thick, the silence as we all held our breath as the patient grunted in agony. His wet eyes begged me to help him.
“Your pain relief isn’t strong enough. I’ll make some changes to get you more comfortable. I’m very worried about you. You might get much worse. Let’s work on your pain first.”
I headed off to prescribe the higher doses and to ask the nurses to prepare them for our patient. He was another classic haematology patient. His discharge summary had recounted the breaking of bad news the day before. There were no further treatments available to stop the blood cancer. The team recommended no further transfusions as they would not be helpful. The next morning the standard blood tests had been repeated, and no surprise, all the blood counts were low, including a platelet count below 10. This meant the patient was at risk of spontaneous bleeds. The medical teams reaction, was to prescribe a platelet transfusion. The hospice doctors who read the notes were confused by this action. How did the patient and his family feel? The day before they had been told no further transfusions, and then less than 24 hours later, he was being transfused.
Over the weekend we managed to control his pain and he spent some time with his family. The highlight was a visit from his children before they went away for a long weekend trip. I was surprised that his weekend went well. He spent more time with his parents and siblings and other family. He asked our staff what was going on, as he was unsure what the treatment plan was.
The patient didn’t want to let go. Their loved ones couldn’t let go either. They all knew what was happening. The patient was dying. The loved ones were crying. The clinicians listened and were guided by what the patient and their family wanted. It was difficult to let them have their way, but it was important for them to exert the only control they had on the situation.
As Palliative Care clinicians we are trained to be compassionate, to want to do something to try to ease another’s suffering. It’s terrible knowing you can make someone more comfortable but you are not allowed to act. It can make you feel powerless and useless. Possibly what the patient and their family have felt throughout their illness experience.
I arrived in the morning and I looked at the little table in our waiting area. I was hoping there would be a candle lit, indicating the death of a patient. There was no candle. The nurses reported that our patient had a rough night. No sleep with lots of distress, the family also distressed and sleepless.
On examination, I saw distress, confusion, discomfort and terror writ large in the patient’s eyes. They seemed to stare through us, into another plane of existence. Concern was etched into the tear-lined faces of the gathered family. They asked to speak to our team in a few minutes time. Their night shift needed to check in with their morning shift.
“I’m sorry but we just wanted to spend as much time as possible with them.”
“There’s no need to apologise, we understand, and you don’t need to explain. You were trying to do your best to hold on to each other. I’m sorry things keep on changing.”
“Please do what you need to. Too much suffering. We can’t bear it.”
“Do you trust us?”
“Yes, please make them comfortable.”
“We’ll start some medications to calm things down, to decrease the distress. We’ll come back in four hours time to check for effect. If it hasn’t worked we will adjust the doses. They’re likely to become sleepy because they are exhausted and haven’t slept for days. They might not be able to wake up again.”
“How much time is left?”
“It might be days at the most, but it is likely much, much shorter. They’re too unwell and could die at anytime. We’re going to get you all through this.”
My team prescribed the medications and I took them for a quick break.
Later in the day, everyone sighed in relief after the last breath was taken.
One of the toughest cases in my fifteen years of full-time Palliative Care.
My patient had been itchy for months. This symptom preceded their cancer diagnosis. Widespread cancer to multiple organs and bones. Normal kidney function, slightly deranged liver function tests. Troubled by pain and nausea but these had been brought under control with medications in a syringe driver. It was the itch which caused the most suffering. Constant irritation of the skin, led to multiple skin wounds. The patient’s finger nails had dried up blood accumulated under each nail. Sleep had been broken by itch. Being in bed under sheets and blankets led to heating up and worsened itch.
On examination the patient’s skin was covered in scratch marks with many healing scabs all over the body. No limb was spared, back and front were no different. Nose was scratched, as was forehead, as was chin. Watching the patient scratching made everyone in the room feel itchy as well. What could we do? In hospital they had already tried many treatments with no success. The patient was exhausted but couldn’t relax to sleep because of the itch.
I ended up throwing the medication book at them Moisturising anti-itch creams with added Menthol were ordered in. I wanted to cover any nerve-related component of itch with increased nerve pain relief medication, Pregabalin. They were already on H1-Histamine blockers. Covering the other H2- Histamine receptor might be helpful. The patient and their family were keen to try anything on offer. Mirtazapine was started to help with the itch and hopefully a better nights sleep as a side-effect.
The next morning my patient was reported to have slept well. The itch was much improved for the first time in months. Which medication had helped? I wasn’t sure but I didn’t want to change anything as something had worked.
A small victory in hospice/palliative care? I’ll take whatever I can get.
In Palliative Care settings you often see many things much worse than death. Death can be a natural release from suffering. Over many years of working in this specialty, I have witnessed many forms of suffering. Most of these situations involve severe pain. Everyone reacts differently to their symptoms. Some people can handle pain, but can’t handle nausea. Others can’t tolerate any loss of their cognitive abilities. Each individual must have a bespoke management plan designed for them.
I knew my patient could handle pain, he had put up with a lot of it over many months. He didn’t complain, he wasn’t angry at God or Jesus. In fact, his faith was stronger than it had ever been. Maybe it was his religion that allowed him to cope with his many pains. We managed to control his back and leg pains well. He was able to sit in his power wheelchair again. Something he had missed doing over the past month due to severe pain. His power chair meant freedom, he could take himself outside to smoke. He was able to go to the local convenience store to buy some sweets and other supplies.
One weekend I had trouble tracking him down. Every time I went to visit him he was out of his room. I finally caught up with him after his return from our hospice shop down the road. He had purchased a hoodie, a small wall hanging, and a little succulent plant to look after. He’d also bought enough instant noodles for midnight snacking over the weekend. He was doing well, and we managed to discharge him back to his residential care facility after the weekend.
He didn’t hide who he was. He owned the mistakes he had made. He had a rough childhood but didn’t make any excuses. His father had taken him from New Zealand to live in Australia when he was a young child. This took him away from the support of the rest of his family. His father didn’t do a good job of raising him. Violence was part of his young life. Soon he became a ward of his adopted state. A volatile childhood led to an unstable adolescence. Self-medication of his trauma led to involvement in the drug scene.
He met a lady, and they thought it was love. Two babies were born before she left him to look after the children by himself. He didn’t know what to do, with no father figures in his life to base his parenting on. All he knew was he did not want to be like his own father. He tried his best, but raising children is an expensive activity. He needed money but couldn’t work full-time. He turned to dealing drugs to support his children. It worked for a while, he could buy nappies, formula and other stuff his kids needed. Things were going okay until he was caught.
Intergenerational trauma was replayed. His children lost their father to the prison system, and they became wards of the state. The tragic cycle continued again, would there ever be an escape? He was deported back to his childhood home, a place alien to this adult who barely remembered his younger years. Times were hard, he tried to keep in touch with his children but they soon forgot their father.