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Dr. Ira Byock is an American leader in hospice palliative care and a passionate advocate for end of life care. His first book, Dying Well, was released 20 years ago and it’s a remarkable book for its time and indeed for any time.

Earlier today, I listened to a discussion with Dr. Byock held in celebration of the book’s 20th anniversary. I wanted to share the link with readers of this blog – I think you’ll find  it as inspirational as I did.

https://iteleseminar.com/100035084?mc_cid=8f0593f849&mc_eid=[UNIQID

 

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I have a very difficult time dealing with people who are exhibiting signs of serious confusion or dementia. Perhaps it’s because I’m what I often describe as “pathologically honest” –  the result, no doubt, of being a judge’s daughter.  So when someone asks me a question that seems to come from way out in left field, I have a hard time not responding with what I see as “the truth.” Whether or not that’s the right thing to do, however, remains an open question.

I’ll give you a couple of examples.

One of the first times I faced this challenge in hospice was with Margaret. She was a woman in her 80s with a large, loving family who surrounded her with music and laughter, grandchildren and treats. One morning, when I approached her bed to ask if she wanted anything, she beckoned me closer.

“The air is changing. Can you feel it?” she whispered.

I was at a loss as to how to respond. I certainly couldn’t perceive any change in the air.

“No, I can’t,” I began.

“Well, you should be able to. It’s going to be in the Toronto Star.”

Before I could ask her precisely what the air felt like, she began talking about a complex machine she’d been asked to work on. She described gears and levers and a fantastical operating system that she seemed to understand perfectly.

“That’s amazing!” I said, in all honesty.

A few minutes later, I found myself chatting with her adult children who were relaxing in the hospice sun room. I mentioned Margaret’s comments to me and they smiled knowingly.

“Yes,” her son said. “It’s hard to know what to make of it.”

“Some people might say it’s the result of the medications she’s on. Or a lack of oxygen in blood stream. But somehow it doesn’t feel like that to me. Any way, I’m not about to ‘correct’ her,” I said.

“Neither are we,” a daughter chimed in. “And you know what? The workings of that machine she’s talking about are far too detailed to be the result of confusion. Mom never had any interest whatsoever in anything mechanical, and now she’s talking about complex mechanisms she has no business understanding.”

We settled on it being part of the mystery and left it at that.

All these years later, I can still see Margaret, sitting up straight in her bed, pointing towards the gardens and the river beyond.

****

On the weekend before she died, my sister Carol had a clarity and drive we had not seen in months. That’s part of why I was so taken aback when she seemed so disoriented when I arrived at her house on Monday.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Umm, I’m here to visit you,” I said, more than a bit unnerved.

“Katherine’s come to spend time with you,” her caregiver B. offered. “Just like she always does.”

The sound of my name seemed to jolt her back to the present. We chatted a bit about what I’d been doing and how she was feeling and things seemed back to normal.

Then, out of the blue, she asked if I still had her piano.

“Your piano?” I asked. “Of course I don’t have your piano. It’s right upstairs where it belongs.”

I’m sure she could tell by my expression that I was freaking out.

“Not that piano! My tape of the soundtrack from The Piano!”

“Yes, I still have it,” I said a little sheepishly. “Do you need it back?”

She shook her head, laughing. She always loved to tease me!

It would be the last time. The next day, we were faced with a medical crisis. And by Friday morning, she was dead.

****

I could provide many more examples of hospice patients who have exhibited everything from mild confusion to profound dementia. Some will ask the same question  over and over again, trying to make sense of their surroundings. “How did I get here?” “Why am I here?” “Where’s my husband?”

There is no simple answer to those questions, and I’m no longer sure that pathological honesty works in all circumstances. What use is it to tell someone who suffers from profound dementia that they are in a hospice, or that they are dying, or that their husband has preceded them in death? The greater likelihood is that they will repeat their question every five minutes, regardless of whether we provide an answer.

So what are we to do? I come back to the place where I always try to begin. Be with them. Simply be with the person as they are, with their confusion, with their suffering, with their sadness. It is by no means easy. But I believe it is a way to honour their humanity, in all its complexity and mystery.

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Dr. Peskin’s first article on the face of dying. I know that when my sister was dying, I felt reassured when I learned what dying might look like and I could better understand the meaning of what I was witnessing. In my hospice experience, most people fall into a deep sleep and die peacefully. Here Dr. Peskin discusses some of the symptoms patients might exhibit.

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A beautiful article on the face of dying – by a physician.  I’ll post her earlier article too.

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Last week, Canadians were shocked and saddened by the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of an Ottawa woman. An op-ed piece written by her husband in the Ottawa Citizen was followed by a radio interview on CBC’s Ottawa Morning. Here are the links to the article and radio story:

http://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/adams-what-my-dying-wife-and-i-never-knew-about-palliative-care

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/programs/ottawamorning/palliative-care-1.4194365

The story provides graphic evidence of the shortcomings of palliative care in this country. As the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association has documented, only 17 to 35% of Canadians have access to hospice palliative care. Many factors result in that variation but even at the high point of 35%, the vast majority of Canadians are not receiving the care they need.

Those of us who have experienced palliative care can attest to the dramatic difference it can make in the lives of terminally ill patients and their families. As many experts have argued, palliative care should be available to patients from the onset of a life-threatening illness to help them deal with pain and other symptoms associated with their illness and to provide them with the knowledge needed to make informed choices.

When my sister was dying 20 years ago, there were (to my knowledge) no pain and symptom management teams or facilities we could access to help us with her care. It was our incredible good fortune to find an amazing palliative care nurse (through a visiting nursing service) who guided us through the final days. Her name was Isabelle (“Is a bell necessary on a bicycle?” she used to joke when I had trouble remembering her name) and she followed us from home to hospital when my sister had to be transferred. She patiently explained the significance of Cheyne-Stokes breathing (the “death rattle”) to a very frightened sister (me), offered non-judgmental advice on the choices we faced (e.g. whether oxygen might help), and reminded me that we were doing a great job.

Today, nurses like Isabelle are working in hospitals and residential hospices, and visiting patients in their homes (including long-term care facilities and retirement residences). They ease the journey towards death for both patients and their families. I wish everyone could have an Isabelle (or a Linda, Valerie, Marie, Esther … ) by their side at this difficult time in their lives.

In my view, there is nothing wrong with palliative care that greater commitment, education, financing, and access wouldn’t fix. We need greater emphasis on palliative care in medical schools and nursing programs. We need the federal government to truly commit to and fund an end of life strategy, and we need our provincial governments to ensure access to high quality hospice palliative care for all Canadians, regardless of where they live.

Until then, I fear that more people will experience the needless suffering that the article above describes. Let’s all work together to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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Preface: I just reread my last post, written nearly a month ago. I love the optimism in the conclusion, my happiness at being home amidst all my fixed points. Alas, within a few days I had somehow suffered an injury that left me with a pulled piriformis muscle and a resulting pinching of my sciatic nerve. (I know, this is too much information for most of you!) The result has been intense pain such that I have rarely experienced (48 hours of labour outdoes it but that was long ago, and with an excellent result!) It’s given me a new perspective on pain, on how exhausting and debilitating it is – and yet how largely invisible pain is, and thus people can assume (wrongly!) that it’s no big deal.

Many times over the past weeks, I’ve thought about how people reacted to my sister’s pain – suggesting she might be exaggerating or even making it up. I remember the orderlies who demanded that she “scoot over” onto their gurney from her hospital bed. Riddled with tumours up and down her spine, she could barely move, let alone “scoot over” upon command.

My sciatic pain was nothing compared to hers, which is why I hesitated to write about it. But as a nurse I worked with yesterday at hospice said, “it’s certainly not a lot of fun.”

All that to say, I haven’t been sitting at my desk for a long time – hence my silence here.

As readers may remember, yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my sister Carol’s death. As the date approached, I’ve thought a lot about the impact of her death on my life, and about what it means to lose a sibling. So I will share some of those thoughts here.

I fully recognize that not all siblings are close, often separated as they are by geography, age and even generation, by life choices, and historic grievances tracing back to childhood. Though my sister and I had had a few low points in her relationship (especially when I became a hippie and frequently criticized her for taking a “straight job.” I was insufferable!) But once I came to my senses and returned to university to become a teacher myself, our bond grew closer and closer.

When our mother suffered a massive brain aneurysm, Carol and I promised we would care for one another when we were sick or in need of help. And I was able to fulfill my half of that bargain when her cancer (originally diagnosed in 1978) returned with an unstoppable force in January 1997.

As often happens when someone is seriously ill, we became closer than we had ever been. Spending hours together, watching videos and bad daytime TV, remembering our childhood antics, talking about hopes and dreams (and fears).

When she died on July 4, 1997, I was devastated. Even though we all knew the end was coming, we had focussed on the immediate – tests, blood transfusions, medications – anything to make her more comfortable. My days were taken up with helping her, organizing her care, and commuting back and forth between Toronto, where she lived, and Ottawa where my immediate family resided. And then, suddenly, all that was gone. After months of thinking about what Carol needed, I had no idea how to carry on.

One of my strongest memories from that period was my desire for some sort of visible sign of my loss. A black arm band, a long black dress (as worn by widows in the Portuguese and Italian communities where I had lived for many years) – something to indicate that I was in mourning.

Though friends and colleagues sent cards and flowers immediately after Carol’s death, soon enough (far too soon for me) they began to carry on as if nothing had happened. Yes, I had a brand new job as the Director of Women’s Studies, and there were responsibilities I had to fulfill. But I still needed consoling.

What I found so difficult was the silence. Perhaps people didn’t know what to say.  Perhaps they found my bereaved state frightening. I had certainly been in their shoes before Carol died.  But now I experienced first hand the impact of avoidance and silence.

One factor, I think, was that most people my age had not yet experienced the loss of a close contemporary, be it a friend or relative. I was only 47 and Carol, just 51. While most of us experienced our grandparents’ deaths, and some of us, parents, siblings were part of the fabric of our lives, people who knew us from the very beginning (or soon thereafter), people with whom we could still consider ourselves young and more or less invincible.

At hospice, I see many people who are faced with the death of a sibling. I can still vividly recall the first person – her sister was a teacher, as Carol had been, her career and life now cut short by cancer’s horrible force. Her sister brought in baked goods almost every time she visited, and she would share the lemon bread, blueberry muffins, and other treats with the staff and volunteers. It was something concrete she could do, when there was nothing she could do to prevent her sister from dying.

Though we are not supposed to talk about our personal lives, I told this woman that my sister had died four years before. We didn’t discuss details, only that I, like her, had been her caregiver. She thanked me for telling her about my loss, and I could see her shoulders relax as she realized that she was not the only one.

Several years later, I bumped into her on the street.

“You know what I tell people?” she told me. “I tell them that when I met you, and I could see that you had lost your sister and you were still standing, and volunteering even, I knew I would survive the loss of my sister too.”

After Carol died, I searched for books that might help me deal with my loss and grief. While there were many books on parental and spousal loss, I found virtually nothing about losing a sibling. It’s one of the reasons I started writing about Carol around the time that I took the hospice training. Not only did I want to honour her with my words, but I wanted to let others know that I understand what it means to lose someone who has known (and put up with) you your entire life.

The death of a sibling can leave a deep and abiding void in one’s life. There will never be another Carol in my life. But I am grateful beyond words for what she taught me. And for the ways she has enabled me to help others through their loss and grief.

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As anyone who knows me (and that includes readers of this blog, of course), I am not a person who believes that everything happens for a reason. Whether it’s a death, the loss of a close friend, a job, or a house, the onset of a serious illness – the list is long for the events for which some people are determined to find a “silver lining.” When my mother suffered a massive brain aneurysm, when my sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and on many other occasions in my life, well intentioned friends and acquaintances would attempt to console me with the thought that even these devastating events happened for a reason.

Most of the time I’ve managed to control myself enough not to lash out (or worse) at these people. Instead, I point out that terrible things rarely if ever happen for a reason. Rather, what matters is what we make of the situation – how we come to terms with it, how we respond, how we make meaning in our lives. Readers here will know that the experience of my sister’s death transformed me in ways I am still coming to understand. My ability to be with suffering and death, my passion for hospice palliative care, my commitment to helping others deal with illness and dying, all stem from caring for Carol when she was dying. So too do my meditation practice, my writing and speaking about caregiving, and my heightened intuitive sense of the suffering of others.

Carol’s death didn’t create these things, of course – nor are they the “reason” she died. But they are part of the meaning I found in the aftermath of losing her.

On July 4th, it will be the 20th anniversary of my sister’s death. I’m not sure yet how I will honour her  (though I do know I have a hospice shift that day, which seems like a fitting way to celebrate her!) No doubt, I’ll write something, as I have so often in the past 20 years. And I’ll remember, with enormous gratitude, all the things my big sister taught me in our 47 years together.

 

 

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