Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lows and Highs

A day in the life...

Things didn't start out so well today. A patient's family was reportedly furious because I'd raised the possibility that their loved one might be ready to step down from inpatient to home hospice care. They claimed they'd been promised that he could stay forever on our hospice unit. I don't know how they'd reached that conclusion; it didn't come from me, and it's my job to make those calls. Those of us in the hospice world understand that anger aimed at us often isn't about us. Instead, it reflects the raw emotions set loose by grief and loss. I chose to have intermediaries deal with the family. Maybe by tomorrow emotions will cool down enough to talk the problem through.

In the next room an older woman seems moments away from death. Her cancer is far advanced; it involves her internal organs, her bones, and even her skin. She has the faraway look of the dying. Her husband of sixty years strokes her forehead and talks about their time together. When he calls her by her nickname, I feel a tightness in my chest. His wife and mine have the same name -- and, as it happens, the same nickname.

Across the hall is Larry, a loner in his early seventies who hadn't seen a doctor in more than fifty years. "That's why he's lived so long," I quipped to the resident who called me about him the other day. Larry came to the emergency room because he couldn't breathe. His cancer involved both lungs, his liver, and his bones. He says he's fine, but we know he has just a few days to live. I tell him not to worry, that we'll take good care of him, and he coughs his way through a thank-you.

Then there's Natasha, 93 years old, a Ukrainian Jew and Holocaust survivor who came to America three decades ago, learned the language, and built a new life. Only now that life is coming to an end. I spent an hour with her son and his family, helping them decide what made sense for her now. In a post about a year ago, I quoted the author Francine Russo, who wrote, "The real challenge in making decisions about life-extending treatment is how much we can focus on what our dying parent needs rather than our own anguish. This is the ultimate test of emotional separation." Natasha's family was still wrestling with their anguish when I left to see my next patient.

Halfway down the hall is Shirley, 103 years young. She had dwindled a bit in recent years but still put on make-up every day and held court at home, surrounded by her large and doting family. She'd been admitted to the hospital because she was becoming withdrawn. They found a large mass in her abdomen, probably cancerous. Her family chose not to to proceed further and instead enrolled her in hospice. As she declines day by day, her daughter weeps at the bedside, telling me, "It's too soon, it's too soon." Experience has taught me that, in one way or another, it's always too soon.

Today also contained a bit of stealth. We've had Ginny on our unit for a couple of weeks, a young woman with terrible cancer and horrible pain who came to us after having seizures at home. We've had to negotiate over and over again with her hyper-attentive husband Richard, who keeps telling us she's not in so much pain (this despite her moaning and grimacing) because -- and he freely admits this -- it's important to him that she remain as awake as possible. (One of these days I'm going to post an entry entitled "Terminally Ill Patients as Family Pets," I swear to God.) Today he was away from the bedside for a few hours, and Ginny's sister stood vigil in his place. I shared with her my concern about Ginny's pain, and the sister told me right off that she agreed with me. We upped the dose and the moaning and grimacing became much less. Returning from his time away, Richard seemed none the wiser.

Then there was a trip to the ICU, where Barbara, an older woman, was dying despite the application of most of the known critical care modalities. She had a living will that made her preferences clear. She'd wanted none of this. The ICU usually calls me when they've exhausted all their options, not before they start down the road that everyone knows leads to the edge of a cliff. I wish they read those living wills and talked about them with patients and their families before they started. Still, this time I parachuted right into the landing zone. Barbara moved out of ICU to our palliative unit. She looked more comfortable immediately, and her daughter seems reconciled to losing her mother in a day or two.

There were other patients, and a hundred or so e-mails to read and deal with. (I'm supposed to grow and develop our program, too, and on days like today the administrative side can drive me to distraction.) At the end of an all too typically long day, I looked in on Bob, a grade-school teacher who'd come in because the pain from his stomach cancer was out of control. I swung open the door to his room and saw him playing the guitar, singing with a couple of friends. Bob, I've learned, is a deeply religious man. The chorus to the song went, "Lord, I have reverence for you." I smiled, bowed my head, and waited for him to finish. His pain is so much better.

It's good to end a hospice day with reverence, I think.


  1. This sounds a typical day; I liked the quote about remembering to wrestle with our own anguish so we can put the dying person's needs before our own; I must remeber this as we seek to personalise our care further.
    With reverence for all my hospice colleagues today, Philip.

  2. Ah rerminally ill patients as family pets, Thats a phrase Ive been looking for! Your Client may be ready to let go, but persuading the family is often qite another thing!

  3. Thank you for sharing some very reflective thoughts and observations which I enjoy reading. Thank you also for your work as a hospice doctor.