Category Archives: Death

In the company of death

The Huffington Post have published an article I wrote on art and death. The edited version can be seen here. The original blog follows.

You are dying.

This is something no-one wants to hear, but it is true for you as much as it is for the critically ill patients I treat each day in hospital. Many of them are much closer to the end than you are, but life is unpredictable, chaotic and sometimes cruel, and few of us will die at the time of our choosing.

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Time to Live

Last night I watched Time to Live from BBC2’s Life Stories series. Twelve people who have a terminal diagnosis share what they have learned about themselves and about life, knowing that it is short. They are people of all ages who have managed to find positives in their terminal prognosis and are making the most of the time they have left.

It is a fascinating, beautiful and uplifting, but also heartbreaking film. We can all learn something from these twelve people who live life with an intensity few of us experience, and who appreciate and celebrate the life they have. They have accepted themselves with all their quirks and flaws, have cut out things that are not important to them, and spend time and energy on things that matter. What this looks like is different for each person. Some go vegan and teetotal, some drink more alcohol and eat more steak. Some travel, dance, or paint. Some quit work, others throw themselves into it. Some reaffirm their faith, some lose it. Some reconnect with estranged family or friends, some leave their husbands.

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Death Cafe Euston

Join me for an evening of discussion on death, dying, life and living at 1 Lancing Street next to Euston station. There will be tea. There will be cake. There will be time and space to talk about death, dying, grief, funerals, and the fragility of life.

Death Cafes provide an opportunity ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives‘. They are group directed discussions with no agenda, objectives or themes. They are discussion groups rather than grief support or counselling sessions. They are generally life-affirming events, but sensitive discussions are of course possible so please bear this in mind. For more information please see www.deathcafe.com.

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An ever deferred death

“…just as we know our walking to be only a constantly prevented falling, so is the life of our body only a constantly prevented dying, an ever deferred death.”  Schopenhauer

I first read these words two years after I had qualified as a doctor. On reading them I felt a jolt: a reawakening of a feeling that I had buried. A feeling that I ran and hid from as I spent my days, and many nights, beside people on the brink of death. Schopenhauer’s words forced me to confront the fact that I felt threatened, fearful, temporary. I felt mortal.

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Those of us who work in hospitals are witnesses to ‘a constantly prevented dying’. We react in different ways, and we rarely talk about it, but I have recognised more than once after a cardiac arrest call that has ended in death, a fleeting flash in the eyes of a colleague that screams “that could be us, we all die!’

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Living loss

I got to know Joseph * over a number of months. He was first admitted to hospital in April, when his bed overlooked the garden with trees in bud. As Spring turned to Summer he was readmitted, and when Autumn came he watched the leaves change colour and fall. Each time he was admitted he spent more time in hospital and less time at home, and we worried more about whether this admission might be his last.

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Joseph had been diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, an incurable condition in which the lungs become progressively scarred, leading to breathlessness and functional decline. Like many patients with a chronic disease, he had opted for a coping strategy that focused on living, and trying to forget there was anything wrong. This meant that despite having symptoms for a number of years he had seldom seen a doctor, knew little about his disease or its’ likely trajectory, and had shared very little with his family.

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Critical care

I was one of the lucky ones this year and was not working on Christmas Day. After my shift on Christmas Eve I fed the cat, packed up the car with presents and headed to my brother’s house. Waiting for me was a glass of mulled wine, and a hug. Christmas Day was lovely and it was with a heavy heart that I left my family and battled the driving rain in order to get back to London for my night shift on Boxing Day. My feelings of dread were not misplaced: the shift was tough. But most of my shifts have been tough of late. I am in the midst of a six month rotation on ICU (the intensive care unit), having left the familiarity of the acute medical ward and the outpatient clinic, replacing them with a world of ventilators, alarms and intense emotions. I am used to hard work, but I find intensive care physically and emotionally exhausting. It has taken me by surprise just how difficult it is to get through the weeks and I have begun to realise that this is primarily due to a concern that not everything I am going is ‘the right thing’.

Clinicians in Intensive Care Unit

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Those who go; those who stay

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.

Those who go

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.

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