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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Finding the words

Making and documenting good decisions about CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and treatment escalation plans, that are truly shared decisions, is a challenge. I find that the challenge comes from a number of factors: intrinsic difficulties of talking about the possibility of death in a largely death-denying culture; the great diversity of beliefs, wishes, and level of preparation for such decisions amongst patients; difficulties in facing my own mortality and the ways in which personal situations may affect my professional abilities; navigating tensions between hope and acceptance; and additional complexities that stem from having such conversations in the context of an emergency hospital admission. In the midst of a busy shift, faced with distressed people who are in pain, sometimes it is hard to find the words.

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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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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’.

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Would I lie to you?

Most days at work pass in a blur of clinics, referrals, ward rounds, meetings, emails and phone calls. But work as a doctor is more than tasks. It requires a repeated, brutal confrontation with the realities of pain, suffering and illness; with humanity itself. At the end of the day I am sometimes left with emotions and questions that I can’t leave behind at the doors of the hospital. I have often felt poorly equipped to approach the grey areas of medicine that no textbook or Google search can answer. And so this year I signed up for an introductory course in Philosophy.

Last week our topic was moral philosophy which attempts to answer questions such as “how should I live?”, “what ought I to do?” We began with a discussion on whether it is ever right to lie.

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Parallel lives

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I am immeasurably proud of the NHS: the most successful model of healthcare the world has ever seen. If anyone within my earshot suggests that privatisation would be a step forward they rapidly regret it. But even I sometimes get a wake up call: a stark reminder of the absolute necessity of the NHS, and the horror we may face if the political right’s dream of marketised healthcare is realised.

On a recent shift as the Medical Registrar I received a call from an A&E doctor who wished to discuss a patient who had suffered a stroke. I was surprised as all patients with strokes are channelled into the acute stroke pathway: assessed and treated by a dedicated team and admitted to a specialised unit for consideration of thrombolysis; specialist investigations; and early physio, speech and language therapy. However the A&E doctor explained the situation and I agreed to admit Maria*.

I sat by Maria’s bed in the Medical Assessment Unit, and listened as she told me her story.

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Lonely this Christmas

I love Christmas. But I occasionally find myself in a moment of loneliness in the midst of all the crowds and music and noise. When I see pictures of friends with their newborns, home just in time for Christmas; hear couples conspiring about the perfect present for each other; or catch the refrain of a song and am reminded that no-one is thinking “all I want for Christmas is you” the sparkle loses it’s shine. Being in the ever diminishing demographic of single 30-somethings can be lonely. But these moments are fleeting. I’m soon reminded of how much love surrounds me as my Mum calls to double check when my train is getting in, my brother texts to ask whether vegetarians eat gravy, and my friends email checking who is bringing the Gin at New Year. I know how lucky I am and how full of people my life is, and I was reminded of this on my last day of work before the Christmas holiday.

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Ron* was a patient I had previously met in clinic. He had severe COPD and lung cancer for which he’d opted not to have treatment. He was admitted the week before Christmas with breathlessness and we were treating him for an infective exacerbation of COPD. We were fully staffed and the team had the ward under control so there was time to do what I wish we could do more often: sit and chat.

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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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The LCP is dead: long live the LCP

Last weekend I was on call in hospital and cared for George,* a patient who was entering the last stages of life. George was no longer conscious so the Consultant and I spoke to his family, discussing which interventions to continue and which we felt were no longer benefiting him. Later in the day I reviewed George and found that he had developed respiratory secretions and was in some distress. I stopped his intravenous fluids, prescribed medications to treat his symptoms and reached for the Liverpool Care Pathway. And then I stopped. In the context of the recent press coverage and the LCP review what should I do?

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Image from The Guardian

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An invitation to An Evening with Death

Where do you want to die? How do you want to be remembered? What is it like to be present when someone dies?

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Death is a subject that it is often difficult to talk about, but is something we all have in common. On this blog I have shared some of my thoughts and experiences as a healthcare professional, having seen death, dying and grief more than most people I know. I have advocated for more open discussions about the fragility of the human body, the limits of medical interventions, and the freedom to live life to the full that might be gained from embracing it’s finite nature.

As a teacher I believe I have a responsibility to prepare medical students to deal with death and grief, and wonder whether we need new ways to do this effectively. Can sharing our experiences with the public be a learning experience for all? Can the arts and humanities help us to cross the ‘us and them’ doctor-public divide?

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