Sometimes I wonder whether there is something wrong with me. Given how much time I have spent in hospitals, and increasingly in our local Accident and Emergency Department, I’m not sure which bit of my brain still wants to feast on hospital documentaries, but I just can’t stop watching 24 Hours in A&E. I tend to record it and watch it when I feel able for it, and tonight I watched an episode from a couple weeks ago that just felt uncannily familiar. It focused on a lady called Josephine who was terminally ill with cancer, who was admitted to A&E with severe breathing difficulties caused by a bacterial infection. During the episode the consultant caring for her had to have the conversation with her (and her family members) about whether she would wish to be kept on life support if she needed intervention for her breathing if her condition were to deteriorate. She chose not to, something that I suspect came as a little bit of a shock for her family members.
They showed her daughter, Jackie, reconciling herself to her mum’s decision and discussing it with her niece and her partner and then she said something that cut through me like a knife, because she used words I’ve heard myself use. She said she couldn’t go back into her mum with red eyes (from crying) because she can’t let her think she’s given up on her. Throughout the episode you could see Jospehine’s daughter willing her better, I was torn between thinking she could go easy on her mum and that she was almost putting pressure on her to stay alive, and recognising myself the impossible situation you find yourself in knowing that if you show doubt you are giving too much away to your parent. There is a very real fear that if you stop believing in them, then they’ll stop believing and die. I don’t think the fear is of them dying in itself, so much as them dying prematurely because they are exhausted and you haven’t convinced them to keep going. Jackie also said something else I’ve muttered myself before, ‘Not yet, it’s too soon’.
I have danced that dance many times. It comes up regularly, although often the tune is slightly different! Should I stay over at my parents to enable my Mum to get a good night’s sleep or does that signal to my Dad that we both think he is more poorly than he realises; should I go on holiday/take the weekend away that has been planned for months and risk Mum being on her own if he deteriorates quickly and maybe not seeing Dad again or do I stay home, play it safe and show my inward concern to him; should I go and get medical help when his breathing starts deteriorating even when he is on oxygen in casualty, or does that make him panic. It is really hard to know how much encouragement to give someone, and when you are applying pressure to them, rather than supporting them reach an equilibrium again.
We are very lucky that Mum and Dad had a conversation very early on when he received his terminal diagnosis, with a nurse from the palliative care team. Dad signed a DNR last May and has had a treatment escalation plan written out since then. Mum keeps it in their hallway, by the phone, so we can flash it at the ambulance personnel whenever they arrive – and they always seem as relieved as we are that it is written, plain and simple, in black and white what intervention is appropriate. It got me thinking tonight perhaps we should all have conversations about what sort of life support we’d want if the need arose, rather than waiting until it is needed.
But I digress, this episode of 24 Hours in A&E featured a lovely nurse, Abbie, who was reflecting on caring for a terminally ill parent. She said:
“It would be my worst nightmare to have to look after one of my parents, if they were passing on. Here’s this person that you love so much, who brought you into this world, you know, they nurtured you to an age where you can finally start looking after yourself. They put you through schooling, you know help you get your first job, they help you do absolutely everything, every time you have a break up you always ring Mum or Dad crying, and I just think for the tables to be turned, where this person who you just think is the most amazing person in the world, is now lying in a bed, and their life is slowly coming to an end, and now you’re the one to look after them and try and nurture them and make the other end of life a little bit better, that must be just, it would be just so sad, but then maybe in a more positive way you can kind of give back what they gave you”
Josephine stayed in hospital for seventeen days. She died at home two weeks later on the 28th March 2012. I hope that by the time Josephine died, Jackie felt that the time was right. It must feel impossible to give up, but in a way I think you know when is right. I very much hope that I get the balance right between being optimistic and realistic, between coaxing and believing, between providing support and providing pressure. In the end I’m not sure it matters once we are all doing our best, as someone else said in the episode there is no real preparation for cancer and dealing with a terminal illness, I guess you just do the best you can.
This week has been a tough one, Dad was taken into hospital on Monday, there were no beds so he couldn’t be kept in so I took him home at about 7pm. We were back up to meet his consultant on Tuesday where he agreed that Dad should come off the palliative chemo he had been receiving. This is quite a signifiant decision really, but Mum and I reflected afterwards on how abrupt an ending it felt. There is no more treatment, Dad was first offered chemotherapy this time last Spring, he kept declining the offer until this Easter when he was so poorly we all thought he was going to die. The next time he was offered it he took it and he has been receiving it ever since.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with chemo it really does take over your life, the appointments, the drugs, the nausea, the infection risk, the tiredness and fatigue, the infections and other side effects. It has taken a gruelling toll on Dad’s body, which I guess isn’t too surprising given that it is effectively poison he is being given. All of that said, before he started chemo his tumour was bleeding so heavily that he couldn’t last a week without a blood transfusion, the chemo has worked some magic and despite all the other side effects, touch wood, for the moment the bleeding does seem under control. My sister’s second child is due in a couple of weeks so if all goes according to plan Dad will become a Grandad for the second time before he leaves this world.
On Wednesday we buried my grandfather, another reminder of the finality of life if any of us needed one. There was a definite sense of dress rehearsal to the event, it prompted many questions about what Dad would wish when the time came. Dad side-stepped most of this chat, with the occasional banterful comment thrown in, and when I saw him today he was still joking about what he would (or rather wouldn’t) want to wear for his funeral. My emotions about Dad’s situation swing fairly regularly from gratitude to despair, although most of the time they sit fairly in the middle at exhaustion.
As I watched the episode of A&E I think what I realised is that programmes like that make it all the more normal. Let’s be honest it is not normal to make banter about or so regularly to discuss funeral arrangements with your parents at my age, it is not normal to be up till the middle of the night in A&E departments patiently waiting for a bed, it is not normal to continue with the trivial every day matters when seconds earlier you were contemplating the fragility of life…and yet it also isn’t as isolating as it can sometimes feel, there are hundreds of people who face the same reality as us, each and every day. I guess cancer throws out any sense of normal, you readjust and live your lives with a different barometer, you dance to a different tune, and in the end you do your best, it’s all anyone can ask for.
It was my Grandad’s funeral today. At 1pm sharp we walked into the Church where he sang as a boy. The 1pm sharp bit was quite lovely, Grandad was a man of orderliness, you could set your watch by the time him and my Gran sat down for dinner, at 1pm every day. Today it was not a Granny dinner that called us together, but a celebration of Grandad’s life. The Church was busy and lots of people hang around for refreshments afterwards once we’d been up for the burial.
The chat beforehand was that they’d be ‘no piping the eyes today’, a stiff upper lip was attempted by all but managed by few. It wasn’t so much the loss of my Grandad that hurt, he was a lovely man who’d had a full and fabulous life, but seeing my Gran follow his coffin out the Church was lip quivering for the best of us. They met in the Church youth club 80 years ago and had celebrated their 71st Wedding Anniversary last month. The other thought I couldn’t shake, and haven’t been able to shake for the last few weeks, is that this really was some sort of dress rehearsal for Dad. He was joking with the undertaker at the graveside and promised to avoid fat ladies singing for the near future. Here’s hoping.
Goodness and mercy all my life, shall surely follow me. And in God’s house for evermore my dwelling-place shall be.
April has felt like a long month, the reality of course is that is all perception, it’s actually only 30 days and I’ve been away for a significant chunk of it, which has perhaps stretched it’s length in my mind. I blogged at the start of the month about Dad’s latest treatment (blood transfusions and chemotherapy) for managing his cancer. At the time I expressed my concern that I was travelling a bit in April and would be away from home if anything happened. The professionals had predicted that if Dad was likely to have an adverse reaction to his chemotherapy it would happen over Easter weekend – sure enough they were right with the expected response, and almost precise on the timings, Easter came and went in an unremarkable fashion and Dad was admitted to our local hospital on the Tuesday that followed. He had an infection, it wasn’t clear what sort or how to manage it, but he was kept in isolation and looked after until he was stabilised.
The weekend that followed I had the absolute pleasure of a weekend in Bonny Scotland. Great idea, lonnnng way. Up to Scotland on the Friday and back on the Monday. I visited Dad on the Thursday evening and he was crystal clear that I had to go, and that my life couldn’t be put on hold for his. He was sent home that weekend and I had a great time away, helped in some part due to my complete lack of mobile signal so I didn’t keep checking my phone for missed calls or texts, which was a welcome relief in itself.
The following week I was working away (at ADASS Spring Seminar) from the Wednesday – Friday. Dad had already had his second course of chemo cancelled given his initial reaction, but seemed to be picking up when I saw him that Tuesday evening. Dad and Mum had an appointment with his oncologist (only the second scheduled appointment I’ve missed since Dad was diagnosed over 4.5 years ago) on the Thursday of that week and he surpassed their expectations again – he appeared to be making a remarkable recovery, his internal bleed and blood loss seemed to have slowed down and he was feeling a lot better. As Mum described it this evening, they had a taste of normality – he was even able to take their dog for a walk on the beach, the first time he has been well enough to do that in months.
The weekend that followed I flew to Ireland for a conference (#EIPIreland) for three days and then stayed on in Ireland for a friend’s wedding this last weekend. On Thursday I got the text I’d been dreading from Mum that said Dad was being admitted to hospital by ambulance for transfusion asap. I’ll spare you the details, mostly because they’re completely inconclusive, but it looks like Dad’s body is struggling to cope – what’s not clear is whether that’s because he was too anaemic for the chemo, or whether it’s a result of the chemo, or indeed whether it’s because his body is slowly starting to shut down, or given Dad’s unique trajectory with this illness to date whether it’s something altogether different.
Having had a week away, I went straight to the hospital on my return yesterday (incredibly grateful that I was back on home soil, Dad hadn’t died while I was away and that my brother had come down to support Mum in my absence) and was gob smacked by how exhausted both my parents looked. It was only a week since they were walking the dog on the beach in the sun – not that you’d have thought as much if you’d seen them. I felt a huge responsibility, not that I could have done anything differently, but I felt like I’d left them to deal with things, and they looked like they’d paid the price for that.
Just about the only thing that is clear this evening is that the bed Dad had in the local hospital was needed for someone else, he was growing increasingly agitated and exhausted with trying to understand the system/decisions/information, and he was being discharged irrespective of the knowns or unknowns. It’s been quite an immersion, not that I ever really escaped it on my week away, but it’s a real reality check as I sit on their sofa banging the keys trying to make sense of it, or share the lack of sense in it with you (assuming as the eternal optimist I am that someone has read this far), and think about how all encompassing living with not knowing is. There are so many unknowns and so little certainty, the immediate reflection is that it can feel overwhelming at times. It’s like a constant faulty rollercoaster ride that you can’t get off, occasionally it slows, in fact sometimes it stops just long enough for you to feel rational/balanced/normal again then it’s like it flies off again, throwing any sense of equilibrium out the side of the ride with you.
There are loads of immediate questions we have, the most immediate include whether Dad will need to stay on the new drugs he’s been given in hospital this time or change again; will he have a PICC line inserted after 11 failed attempts to insert a cannula at the weekend; will his chemo be continued; how long can he cope with the constant intervention; how long can the NHS afford to provide intervention/blood/chemo; whose advice should we take and/0r who should we ask questions of. That may give you a smidgen of a sense of the level of not known.
Then of course there is a continual, constant balancing act of making the right call around priorities in life. The hard thing about knowing someone you love is terminally ill is that it provides a lens of constant reflection, every decision (if you allow it) could take on a significance of monumental proportions. Well maybe I’m being a little dramatic, perhaps not every decision, cocopops or muesli for breakfast shouldn’t have a massive effect, but knowing whether to visit tonight or wait until tomorrow could.
My colleagues have been constantly supportive, encouraging me to take what time I need, the reality is that I don’t know. If I take time now is it an indulgence, will it scare Dad into thinking I think he’s dying (and put him in a negative mental place that suggests I don’t believe he’ll live much longer), will it just put other elements of my life under more pressure in the long run, will it just add to the pressure that my folks are already under, if there is one thing I have learnt it’s that multiple people hanging around and waiting to understand the vagaries of the NHS is not a good use of their time and definitely puts your already strained relationships under more pressure.
Likewise people have offered to help in any way they can, the reality is I don’t want to call on people’s offers of support now unless I really need it because I don’t know if we’ll need it more later, it’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf I suppose – it’s impossible to know what the future holds so you just have to juggle the unknown and hope you make the right call. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this post, in fact I might not even publish it because it feels like a lot of rant with not much purpose, an almost indulgence (the worst kind of blog post). That said if this goes any small way to share the experience with anyone else then maybe that’s no bad thing. It’s really exhausting constantly living with an awareness of the unknown…the huge irony of cause is that we all live in this existence every day, even if we don’t recognise or realise it.