A large proportion of my life is spent within the walls of the hospitals of North East London. But when I’m not at work, I can often be found in one of London’s fantastic art galleries. Art is essential for my personal wellbeing, and a great way to dissociate myself from the trials and tribulations of being a doctor.
But every so often these two worlds collide.
A few years ago I went to an exhibition at the Tate Modern on Futurism. It was a fantastic exhibition, highlighting a brief but incredibly influential period of modern art. I was profoundly struck by a specific piece: a tryptych by Umberto Boccioni entitled “Farewells; Those who go; Those who stay,” now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Not only is it beautiful, but the artist effectively captures the emotions inherent in farewells. It has stayed with me ever since. I was reminded of this piece recently after a particularly emotional on call shift.
I was having a long overdue cup of tea and updating the patient list when the screech of the arrest bleep demanded my attention. I rushed to the appropriate ward and arrived in time to see the patient lose output. The team got to work quickly switching from BLS to ALS, and we attached the defibrillator to see what no arrest team wants to see: PEA, a non-shockable rhythm. After a rapid intubation and several cycles of good quality continuous chest compressions with appropriate drugs given, the rhythm remained PEA. The arterial blood gas showed no reversible causes and several poor prognostic indicators. From the information we had available we concluded the patient had died and was not coming back and we stopped attempting to resuscitate them.
There is always a strange moment at the end of an unsuccessful resuscitation as the cohesive, united team, at one within the all-consuming emergency, shifts; and becomes, once again, a group of individuals. Each one takes a deep breath, psychologically removes themselves from the situation and walks away to continue with their shift.
As I took my own deep breath and stepped outside the curtains, I became aware of the patients and relatives in the bay. I had been preparing myself to speak to the patient’s own family and explain what had happened, but I had not considered the effect on those who had just witnessed the death of a fellow patient, behind the mysterious veil of the blue curtain.
Whilst we acknowledge the loss of “Those who go” I wonder if we provide enough support for ‘Those who stay’. On this occasion, after talking to the family directly affected by the death I went to speak to each patient and relative in the bay and tried to offer some comfort and reassurance. They had many questions, and I was not able to answer them all due to confidentiality. But it did open up the opportunity to talk about life and death. It led to a particular patient expressing his worries about his own diagnosis, and the opportunity for me to clarify the information we had available on his prognosis.
Talking to the patients and relatives who witness a cardiac arrest is not my usual routine, and it is unlikely I will always have enough time to do so. I know that nurses often fulfil this role but I wonder whether as clinicians we are guilty of relinquishing our responsibilities and not providing effective holistic care. I searched for evidence of the impact on hospital inpatients of witnessing death, and interventions to support them. I found very little. One study looked at hospice patients, and another patients with schizophrenia: quite specific and different populations. My knowledge in this area thus remains in the realms of anecdote.
In the 1912 catalogue of the Futurists, they claimed ‘We thus create a sort of emotive ambience, seeking by intuition the sympathies and the links which exist between the exterior (concrete) scene and the interior (abstract) emotion.’ This seems particularly apt as we try to navigate the emotions provoked by witnessing death and grief, and maintain control over the concrete scene of the hospital ward.
As doctors we should all aim to provide holistic care, but must consider what this really means. Holistic care extends beyond the acute illness; beyond the individual patient; to all those affected by illness: patients, relatives, colleagues and ourselves.