Our patient was dying of end-stage cancer, it had spread throughout his body causing significant pain. He had been having trouble passing urine, over the last two days. This had worsened and our ultrasound bladder scan showed urinary retention with a collection of 1.5L. One of the more painful conditions that people can have. The bladder’s walls are elastic but are not meant to stretch that far. Many nerve endings were firing off pain signals, our patient writhed in his bed. His wife and daughter were distressed seeing their lovely man in such discomfort.
The doctor on call was called in at 1 am after the nurse had tried twice to catheterise our patient without success. The urinary catheter could not pass through a blockage despite the nurse trying all the usual tricks. The doctor attempted catheterisation three times before calling me in. I arrived just after 2 am and decided that I would have to perform a more invasive procedure. The patient was too distressed, he was too unwell to be transferred to the hospital. I would have to drain his bladder using a needle, something I had never done before in my 20 years of medical practice.
The illness had affected her speech making it difficult to understand. With some effort I could tune into what she was saying but there were some things that I could not understand. It was frustrating for her as her mind was sharp but the words would not come out right. The nerves controlling her vocal cords and her breathing muscles were not doing their job any more. She tried to tell us about her suffering but she could only use short sentences. She hadn’t been able to raise her voice for years, and even if she wanted to scream out loud, only a whisper would’ve been heard.
Her pain was not physical, she could handle physical pain and simple pain relief would have helped. The agony she felt she could no longer describe in words. Her sense of wholeness had long been destroyed, her ability to exist as a person had been torn apart. Mere words could not describe the torment she had lived with for six years. I tried to listen to her actively, I tried to read her situation, her illness ravaged poker face only provided scant clues. Intellectually I had an inkling of what she had lost, but I could not feel it during our first meeting. I needed more information before I could understand.
On the desk I was surprised to see the returned tackle box. This usually happens when a patient doesn’t require subcutaneous medications anymore, or else when a death has occurred. There would be a missing name on our “patients to be discussed” list tomorrow, one that had been on the list for most of the past eight months. Continue reading →
Over the years I have been privileged to share some meals with a visiting Lama from the Tibetan Buddhist Faith. Rinpoche is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA but regularly visits New Zealand. Dinners with Rinpoche are always very interesting and he has many stories to tell. Given my own professional interests, the topic of death and dying often comes up. During one of those conversations Rinpoche shared a related story about one of his late American friends.