Over the past two years despite all the stressors faced there has been a sound heard increasingly throughout the corridors of the hospice. As many doors and windows have been left open to allow greater ventilation to allow viruses and other infective materials to be circulated out of the building but the sound of the wind is not the subject of this post. It has been cold at times during the winter and the sound of fan heaters has been present at times but again it is not interesting enough to merit any writing. When patients are breathless an electric fan is lent to them for them to have the breathlessness relieving air across the face which is more effective than oxygen and other prescribed treatments for people who can’t catch their breath. Our cleaning staff continue to work tirelessly to keep our premises clean, without their efforts we could not keep our operation running, and the importance of their infection control toil cannot be underestimated. The sound of vacuuming, wiping and mopping are commonly heard again and are not the subject of this piece.
The sound can be contagious. When you hear it you feel different. It is something that resonates inside you and it makes you feel more human and less alone. It can change your facial expression in an instant. It can lead to a sudden and rapid expulsion of air from your body. No, I am not talking about passing gas, that’s what anaesthetists do for a living, I work in palliative care. The brass band will not produce these sorts of sounds, but maybe the sound belongs in the orchestra’s wind section. Sometimes, playing an air guitar or the world’s tiniest violin can produce the sound.
Some cases will hit you in the emotional gut harder. Maybe the situation triggers something inside you, or the patient or their family members remind you of someone that you know. These are the sort of feelings that can be reflected upon during professional supervision sessions. Something has impacted you emotionally and you may not know what it was or why it had such an effect on you. The supervisor can help you to tease this out. It’s like they hold up a mirror that allows you to reflect on your emotional responses to the patient encounter.
The risk of connecting with another human is that as a human being you can feel hurt by the relationship. You need to make a connection to work with someone closely, but the connection puts you at risk of emotional harm. Strict boundaries may help delineate where you stand with each other. Some people you will identify with more and will feel closer to. Professional supervision sessions usually occur monthly and in the times in between, you need other self-care resources.
Debriefing with your team members can be a useful exercise and can lead to team building. Acknowledging the human feelings we all have felt dealing with the case. Some cases are tragic and sadness to some extent is unavoidable. Express the grief, and get over the loss, with your teammates. If you internalise the feelings too much they may make you feel unwell and you will be a less effective clinician. Informal debriefing with colleagues can be a good thing to do. Some cases will require a more formally structured and facilitated debriefing session.
If you are feeling upset about a patient encounter, your team members will likely be feeling similar. Talking through difficult cases with each other can be helpful. Don’t bottle up the emotions. Don’t take them home with you after work. Working in palliative care we do deal with lots of sad stuff, and it can get to you if you do not proactively take care of yourself and your teams. Self-care is an essential practice and is a crucial component of any clinician’s sustainable practice. Please look after yourselves and your teams.
In Palliative Care practice I often have emotionally loaded conversations. Tough talks about death and dying are commonplace. Emotions may flow in a raw state and tears may be involved. Sometimes you are confirming people’s greatest fears. They will not be recovering, they will become more unwell, and they will die. The emotional hit can be hard and the energy is felt by the recipient as well as the provider of the information.
Human emotions can be messy and the levels of distress can be high. When in the clinical moment I have to hold it all together, to stay calm as I guide them through the rough waters. I allow the emotions to flow, to be felt as they cannot be denied. Preparing someone for their imminent death can be some of the toughest work I do and some of the most important work I do. I don’t want anyone to have any surprises, they need to know what they are dealing with. The information will be shared in a kind and gentle fashion, but some ideas and concepts hurt when they are heard. The treatment of someone’s existential distress is beyond the effects of any of the medications I prescribe.
After conversations with high emotional stakes, I will call for a break. I will remove myself and my team from the patient room and will leave the inpatient unit itself. We walk upstairs and have a drink in the staff room. We remove ourselves from the fray, even if it is for five minutes. A micro-break is had. Our bodies and minds are taken away from the physical environment where heightened emotions were experienced. We nourish our bodies with some food and drink and take some time out. If possible, we also go out onto the deck to have some fresh air and sunshine.
Soon enough we will be back downstairs to deal with the next case. The short break allows us to be present for the next conversation with our next patient.
In healthcare it is important to set clear boundaries in order to care for yourself and your patients in a sustainable fashion. In the practice of palliative care, boundary setting is even more important, as the therapeutic relationship can be very intense and intimate at times. We have to keep in mind that this relationship will likely end soon, with the death of our patient. It can be a difficult balancing act; using your humanity to make important connections with another human being; while at the same time keeping professional distance to protect the both of you.
That being said, it is inevitable that there will be some cases which will hit you harder than others. When a deeper connection has been made, you will feel the loss and grief much more strongly. Informal reflection with your team members and professional supervision have an important role to play in keeping us palliative care providers safe to continue doing the important job that we have to do. We need to remind ourselves that this is a job that not everyone in healthcare can handle. That those of us who chose to work in palliative care, owe it to ourselves and our patients to look after ourselves. We are a precious resource and if we do not take care of ourselves, we will deny our patients and their families the difference that we can make in their lives, and deaths.
After almost ten years of working exclusively in full-time palliative care practice I would like to share a case that reminded me of just how human I am, and how much value I obtain from professional supervision and from sharing with my team members.