In Mortal Danger

We are all in mortal danger.  No exemptions, no alternatives, it doesn’t matter if you are sick or well, at some point it will happen to each one of us. Mortality is part of vitality; it’s just the part we studiously choose to ignore.

I’ve just put down a book that should be compulsory reading for every adult. And not just once, we should all re-read it every few years.  Have you read “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande?  He is what is known as a physician-writer. It’s an entire genre!  Last year, I wrote briefly about something discussed in another physician writer’s book:  ‘One Doctor’. Brendan Reilly is another brilliant physician-writer who tackles the subject of the confounding American Medical System. Oh my, that was a great read too, so timely and thought provoking. Where are we going with our own medical system? I sincerely hope not to the same places… but there are some similarities.  Brendan Reilly’s book is a brilliant companion to Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal’. I think those two authors would have great conversations!

Somehow seems unfair that people gifted in medical ‘brainage’* can also be gifted writers, I suppose it follows that Gawande and Reilly are good at sports and incredibly good looking too (!) but I haven’t seen them so I can’t confirm. Some people just get it all!

Atul (I feel we are on a first-name-basis now I have read the book) writes about a very uncomfortable subject.  I’ve written about it here, but my words were inadequate in comparison to his excellent (and detailed) discussion. It’s difficult to convey in a blog post a message he has delivered so beautifully in his book. I love his writing style; fluid, easy.  He’s a compelling storyteller.  It’s through the stories in this book that he gets us to honestly look at the elephant in the room.  We are mortal. We never want to look at that, we never want to engage with what it might mean about our lives. Somehow, our brains slip away from the realities all the time. But Atul forces us to look, to think, to examine what our own wishes are for the inevitable. Not just the inevitability of death, but of old age. His book is a crucially important guide to the subject of both and an important criticism of the directions of gerontology in traditional western medicine.

picture of the cover of Atul Gawande's book 'Being Mortal'
Atul Gawande :: Being Mortal

Have you ever heard parents ask children to promise not to put them in a home in their old age? Or seen people refuse to use of mobility aides, or even prolong the lives of their loved ones with unnecessary medical interventions for their own reasons? I have often. We see and hear examples of people grappling with issues around mortality every day, but we don’t really examine how it could be better. It is very difficult for any family to make decisions about end-of-life issues when they are emotionally distraught, far better to engage with them long before the inevitable, to remove the burden of big decisions. We can all do this by making our wishes clearly known. And I don’t just mean “if I am brain dead turn off the machine”. There are a lot of statistically more likely scenarios to consider. Atul knows this, because he’s been in that position with his own Father, as well as countless patients. I know this, because I was with my Mum when she was going through her final days.

The older we get, the more often mortality will come and slap us in the face, that of others and eventually our own. But have we considered the type of death we might prefer if the choice were ours? Have you ever heard of Advance Directives? Even more importantly, have you discussed the curliest of questions with your family?  Atul provides us with four thought provoking questions to guide our discussions. I won’t tell you what they are, because I want you to read that book.

When my Mum was about two weeks from her death, she was distressingly uncomfortable. An enormous tumour had enveloped her abdomen and was pressing on her diaphragm. She didn’t want morphine, but eventually asked for it; the pain was too extreme. Hospice care was compassionate and careful but also generous; they helped her with pain and anxiety, they talked with us, and with her. Food was still being brought to her, and desperate for sensation, taste, life, she would try to eat. “I’d love x, y or z” she would say wistfully “…or just something… juicy”. We would race to meet every whim. But there was nowhere for the food to go, the tumour had encompassed her stomach. And her gag reflex had stopped. She knew eating was pointless, she knew she had to vomit or endure more pain and nausea. She was too weak to help herself out of the predicament, so she asked me if I could stick my fingers down her throat to help her relieve the situation. I would have done anything she asked me to do. My precious, frail Mumma. I helped her to vomit in the way she had helped me do countless things when I was little. With love.

Soon, she chose to not eat anymore. The hospice nurse, marvelling in a later conversation with me, remarked on my mother’s tenacity for life. She mused, just as an aside, that patients who continue to drink water last longer than those who don’t.  It is obvious really, isn’t it?  But when you’re there in that room, watching your loved one facing death, deep in the desert, it doesn’t seem so.  It was revelatory that death by an aggressive cancer would not be swift, but a long and painful process. That death would eventually be by starvation, or dehydration. It seemed so grotesquely cruel.

Mum’s final days passed in the torturous way they do at the sharp end. She drifted in and out of fitful sleep, her breathing ragged. She could barely talk but would turn her eyes to the straw in her cup and when we held it to her lips, she would drink like she was traversing a desert with no reprieve. We swabbed her mouth out with special sponges when she could no longer produce saliva. We watched her suffer, limp with inability to do anything that could really help.

One morning, awake and waiting for the next shot of pain relief, she croaked

“-tell me why I can’t just die?”

I thought about hwat the nurse had said. But I was afraid, because I knew my Mum. I knew her steely determined side, I knew if she wanted to go, she would make it happen. I looked into her face, taut with pain.

I confess that watching her suffer was the most agonising experience of my life.

I confess I hoped that there might be an end to the horror, for her and for me. And I whispered:
“Mum, the nurse said it’s not possible to live without water.”

For a long time, I felt guilt about telling her that. But her eyes shone up at me. She couldn’t talk. But she refused any more water. By the next day, she had drifted off into a coma. That was her only way out. A desperate, dry, gasping and rasping before a quiet coma. And I will forever feel responsible for my part in how it played out.  Did it save her from more suffering? Possibly. Did she want to go? Absolutely. We were extending her suffering with all the love our hearts and hands could muster. “Another sip Mum… come on, water is so good for you”.

I wish this book had existed when my Mum was sick.  I wish her faith in God’s healing had left some room for us to talk about such things. I wish that she could have had less chemo, and more good days.  But of course, more than all of that I just wish she was still here.  It is a regret that I have that I had pushed her to fight, to try, to hang in there, all because my own fears about life without her were so all-encompassing.

Atul Gawande’s book would have been useful back then, but it is still incredibly useful right now. Mum’s death was my first proper shock into the reality that death finds us all, but being sick for six years forced me to think about it even more. We are ageing, and so are our remaining parents. There are things to consider, things to discuss. I think about my own children and know that I never want them to be in the position of feeling responsible, or guilty, for any aspect of my wishes. I want to take that burden off their shoulders.

Have you had the discussion?

PLEASE read this book, there is far more to it than you might think. It is uplifting, not depressing. It could change your life, and your loved one’s lives for the better.  One thing I know for sure, we are all in mortal danger, and apathy could steal from you the things that will matter the most to you.

It’s time to talk.

 

*I know, ‘brainage’ isn’t a word, but it should be.

The Impatient Patient

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 10.10.26 amScreen Shot 2014-06-03 at 10.09.56 amScreen Shot 2014-06-03 at 10.07.50 am

There is a lot of frustration happening in the world of Dysautonomia, in fact, in the worlds of all chronically ill patients.
For some, diagnosis is fast and a cause is identified, treatment begins.  Sometimes treatment is successful.
For others, for so many… diagnosis takes years.  People are often mis-diagnosed first with anxiety, depression, hysteria and all manner of strange conditions.  Until someone starts to put the puzzle together, piece by agonising piece.  Someone recognising that the pattern of symptoms is autonomic is usually the start of that process.  Sometimes, that someone is the patient themselves, forced into a position of applying their non-medical brain to medical journals.  It is a scary and difficult job, sifting through medical literature, looking for words you recognise, learning as you go.  But you have to.  Who else will take the time?  To whom else does your life matter enough that the research is worthwhile?

I don’t know why some doctors are excellent and others are not.  But I know what the experience of a good doctor is from a patient’s point of view.  A good doctor is prepared to listen.  They will ask you good, probing questions.  They are thorough, respectful and give you time to respond.  That’s important when your brain is foggy and your words don’t always step out in the correct order.  It requires patience toward the patient. I guess that is hard when the schedule is busy and they’ve been listening all day.  But a good doctor, even after years of practise, can still say “What if?” and “I don’t know, let me see what I can find out…”.  A good doctor is prepared to engage in the conversation with an open mind.

I’m sad today.  Sad because since I’ve been working on this blog, I have a much more personal realisation about the affect of Dysautonomia on the lives of people who have reached out to me.  Even here in New Zealand.  I have had messages from people, more than ever before.  Can you help me?  My doctor won’t help me.  I need information.  I need recognition.  I need support.  They are asking:
How can I make my doctors care about me?  Take notice? I am declining. My life matters.  Why don’t they care?

Like them, I too, am locked in a frustrating dance with a doctor who doesn’t seem to care. He is my main specialist and has taken over my case from someone who cared a lot. The contrast is painful.  When I am in his consulting room I can see his attention drift off, his thoughts elsewhere.  He often begins by saying things like “I see you have had an admission, but you are quite well now?”  The question mark is an afterthought.  I am supposed to say, ‘yes’ and go through the motions of the rest of the consultation so he can tick his boxes.  But I am not ‘quite well’.  My daily life difficulties are increasing all the time.  We are accommodating the changes the best way we can.  Navigating the path of progressive illness without guidance, lit only by the flame of our own frustration.  He has decided the best approach with me, is to “observe the progression“.  And because he has decided this, I must oblige.  I am powerless to suggest, enquire, wonder, report, relay, present, offer… anything further.  Because the doctor has decided.

But, Doctor.  This life I have.  I love it, I need it. Even broken and interrupted by illness, I want to be here.
It is valuable to me, Doctor, in your armchair.

I choose to fight for my family, for the love that pulses out past my illness and into every corner of their lives.  I choose to fight for the autonomic nerves that have not yet been damaged by this disease.  The longer you leave it, merely observing my progression, treating the symptoms, waiting, watching; the more my ganglia are picked off, one by one. 

And there it goes. Another day.  No other dollar.  I am not working, I am not teaching.  My work to do was worthy, wonderful work.   I had much to contribute, I like to believe I still will. 

And there.  Another day. My children.  Growing older, stepping out beyond yesterday and into a tomorrow I need to be part of. 

Another day; my husband.  Carrying burdens too heavy even for his broad shoulders.  Pushing on.  I want to help him more, be there for him, too. 

This life is valuable, doctor.  Do you see me? I am your impatient patient.  The one who would rather not be a patient at all.

Should you come into my home and observe my life, not just my disease progression, you might try to take some action.  You might begin to listen.  You might think us worthy of that much. You’d be welcome. 
Doctor, get up from that chair. Get down from that high horse.

Another day came around.
Another day with no more answers,
no direction, no help.

And another day came around,
and another patient wrote to me.
Can you help me? 
Can you help me find a pathway through?

Can you make them see,
Me?

Another day and I am counting
More ganglionic death within my frame.
Less function, more frustration.
And you, Doctor, barely know my name.

Another day, but are you counting?
do you record the way I do?
do you read the publications
scour the boards to read the news?

In another country,
I might be getting something done.
I might be making a kind of progress,
I might be a …’lucky’ one.

In another percentage band,
my life might take different course.
In another doctors hands,
my life might matter

as much as
yours.