Tag Archives: hold hand

The Expiry Date

This morning I read drkategranger’s blog regarding her expiry date (she is a doctor with terminal cancer who talks about death so candidly, it inspires. I would absolutely recommend!!!). The blog and some of the responses to it got me to thinking about death. I have already written about dying and the fact that I fear it not so much. As a Muslim, I tend to see death as just one of those certainties of life so I treat it quite matter-of-factly. This blog is will be further musings about my experiences of death. I will start with a quote from Hadith (Islamic teachings) which summarises how I generally see life and death:

Al-Hasan Al-Basrî said:
‘The life of this world is made up of three days: yesterday has gone with all that was done; tomorrow, you may never reach; but today is for you so do what you should do today.’ Al-Bayhaqî, Al-Zuhd Al-Kabîr p197

I am generally an optimist or more accurately an optimistic realist so I try not to be morbid and I am generally not one to dwell on death. However, I have had times in my life where the thought of dying has crossed my mind. Last winter was a pretty bad time for me. I was working in the hospital that inspired me to become a paediatrician (which still inspires me) but I was in a job with a particularly toxic individual who succeeded in poisoning the atmosphere. I became depressed after 6 weeks of this. So much so that I hated waking up every morning I was scheduled to work. It got to a point that I would lie in bed, sleepless and think ‘would it be that bad if I didn’t wake up in the morning?’ As soon as the thought came to my mind, I would feel guilty and terrible. Guilty because I knew that my life really wasn’t that bad and that there was so much for me to be grateful for. Terrible because I knew my death, although insignificant in the grand scheme of things, would be horrible for my nearest and dearest. My mama especially. I got through those 4 months because my husband was there and would not let me sink into the depths of depression that kept pulling at me. Thank you George!

I am now back to my normal sunny self despite some current work horrors. As a newly-qualified doctor back in 2009, I dealt with death day in, day out especially on my first job on gastroenterology at a busy inner-city hospital. After the initial shock, I got used to it. Not that I didn’t care or it didn’t bother me but I dealt ok with it. There are 2 patient deaths from those days that have stayed with me. Both died of alcoholic liver disease. Both men in their 40s.

The first patient died slowly from hepatorenal syndrome (HRS). Basically with chronic liver failure, if your kidneys too fail, you will die soon because that means 2 of your 4 vital organs are dead or dying, unless you get brand new organs (i.e. transplants). As things currently stand, you cannot be put on the transplant list for a new liver if you are still abusing alcohol because the new liver will get damaged just the same and it is considered a waste of an organ that is in high demand but short in supply. So with my first patient, who I will call Patient A, when his kidney function tests declined rapidly and nothing we could do medically fixed it, we diagnosed HRS and my registrars and consultants had a meeting with his wife to inform her of the diagnosis and what that meant for the patient. He too was told in due time but because of his liver failure, he was confused and did not fully grasp the fact that his condition was terminal.

He deteriorated slowly over a few weeks but in the meantime, he would ask me daily when he could go home and travel to India to be blessed in the Ganges River. I would mutter something non-committal and beat a hasty retreat out of his side room. Initially, it was clear that his wife knew his death was near. But even she began to belief he would miraculously recover from his liver and kidney failure. Every week, she would say something that made us worry we hadn’t prepared her for the inevitable. Every week we would remind her gently that although she couldn’t see it, he was in actual fact deteriorating judging from his biochemistry lab results and worsening oliguria (he was weeing less and less).

In the week of his death, he suddenly looked well again. If I wasn’t the doctor patiently doing bloods on alternate days and chasing those results and noting the relentless rise in his urea and creatinine, I too would have started to believe in miracles. His wife upon seeing the light return to his eyes and his demeanour brighten plunged headlong into denial and joined him in planning their trip to India to the Holy Ganges River. Less than 24 hours before his eventual expiry date, it was devastating for me to watch her grief as the light in his eyes faded rapidly and he shrunk back into himself. Within 12 hours of his final illness beginning, his strength was gone and his mind with it. His utterings became incomprehensible and he became completely disorientated. The look on her face said it all when we came in to see him on our ward round that morning. We returned the look and she ran out of the room to sob in the corner. He was anuric by then (had stopped weeing completely) with a creatinine of over 400 (in other words, his kidneys had packed up). His liver function tests painted an equally damning picture. We completed his end of life paperwork that morning and when we left work that evening, he was hanging on by the tips of his fingers. We came in the next morning to the news that he had died before the end of the day before. The side room he had occupied for many weeks stood empty, awaiting its deep clean before the next customer.

Patient B was a young alcoholic who had developed liver cirrhosis in the months before I started the job. He had just turned 40 and I don’t think had any idea how serious the consequences of regular alcohol binges could be. Reality hit when another patient who was his ‘neighbour’ on our ward developed HRS and died rather quickly. All of our words of warning had somehow not sunk but with this other patient’s death, his mortality was clear to him. He called me over urgently that afternoon and said ‘Doc, I am ready to change’. I was pleased and felt a sense of accomplishment when I referred him to the rehabilitation programme. His wife found me the next day before they were discharged home to thank me for getting through to him. I was honest to say it wasn’t anything I did.

Unfortunately, he came in a few weeks later unwell with an infection which caused his liver function to deteriorate badly. I was encouraged to hear that he had no touched a drop of alcohol since his last admission. He developed litres of fluid in his tummy and I had to put in a tube into the side of his tummy to drain out all that fluid. He was in a lot of discomfort and fearful for his life and he asked me ‘Doc, am I going to die?’ I hesitated over the words I used but in the end I made no promises. Just that I would do everything I could to help him get through this. At first, it looked like the drain and intravenous antibiotics were effectively doing the job and the next day, the fear was gone from his eyes. I was encouraged by his blood results and left having ordered some more routine bloods for the next morning. Coincidentally, at I was securing his abdominal drain, I carelessly dropped the needle I was using to suture and when I went to retrieve it, gave myself a needle-stick injury. I had to get a co-doctor to inform him and take blood samples off him to check that he didn’t have any blood borne infections I could catch. He apologised every day after the event like it was his fault I had stuck myself with a contaminated needle. He asked me about those results daily – he seemed genuinely to care for my welfare. This went on for over 2 weeks as he slowly improved.

I was doing the ward round alone one morning when I was called urgently to his side. He was in a great deal of pain and was writhing in his bed with his abdomen larger than before we drained him. He was pale and clammy and his eyes looked like a man staring down the barrel of a gun. I could barely make sense of his words and as I changed his prescriptions, called the blood bank for blood products and prepared to get a new drain inserted. I could see the life begin to ebb out of his eyes. In a panic, I called my registrars and told them I needed them on the ward ASAP because patient B had taken a turn for worse and nothing I was doing was making a difference. The registrar told me to leave the drain for the meantime and focus on reassuring the patient. After I asked the nurses to call his wife in, I went to him and I held his cold hand. I looked into those eyes and I knew in that instant that he was not long for this world. I remember saying a mental prayer that he could hang on for his wife to be by his side.

‘Doc!’ he cried. I squeezed his hand and responded ‘Yes B?’

‘I am dying aren’t I?’ he asked. I looked down and swallowed the lump in my throat. ‘I am here for you B and I will do everything I can to help you. Your Mrs is on her way in.’

‘Stay with me,’ he entreated fearfully. I nodded and again I had to look away because the fear in his eyes was too powerful for me to take in. The rest of it was a blur. His wife made it in before he died but not in time for him to know she was there. He was delirious by the time she got to the ward and as he was slipping away before our very eyes, there was little time to have ‘that conversation’ with his wife. The consultant whisked her away and broke the news to her. She could see that treatment was futile by then and knew that he was on maximal available medical treatment. We had no more to offer. She signed the DNAR (do not attempt resuscitation) forms and we set about making him less agitated. When we finally called it a day, he was less distressed, still mumbling incoherently and his eyes had started to take on that distant look I now associate with death. I came in the next morning to a request to come to the morgue to complete his death certificate and Crem forms so that his wife could lay him to rest. I got a call 3 days after his death to say his blood tests for blood borne infections had come back negative so I was in the clear. I cried in the staff toilets. He would have been relieved not to have put me at risk I think.

What did patients A and B teach me about death and dying? Firstly that when it is your time to go, it is your time to go. Life unfortunately doesn’t usually give you a clearly labelled package with an expiry date on it. Secondly, although death is scary for the person dying, it is actually worse for the person who loves them who has to watch them lose their battle to live and battle their fear of the unknown. Who has to go home and face life without them and rebuild their lives around the hole left by the dead loved one. Who for a very long time will think about their dear departed every morning when they wake up and every night before they fall asleep. Lastly, every human is unique. Despite having the same disease and modifying your risk factors, your body will do its own thing. We doctors can try to influence outcome but whether we succeed or not is not within our power to control. That is beyond science and medicine. That is life. That is God. That is reality. May we all depart this world in the easiest swiftest way possible. Amen

What does a Junior Doctor Do Exactly?

A letter written to Jeremy Hunt by a consultant currently working in England.
An excellent illustration of how indispensible ‘junior’ doctors are to the NHS and the public as a whole. I couldn’t have put it better myself so I haven’t tried to 😀

…………………………..

Dear Mr Hunt,

My name is Philip, and I am a consultant physician. Not so long ago, I was a junior doctor and like many others I am outraged and angry about what you propose to do with ‪#‎juniordoctors‬ and their ‪#‎juniorcontracts‬.

I thought that maybe, given you have not worked in healthcare, you might not understand what it is that doctors do (much like if I was made, say, head of Network Rail) so I thought maybe I can help you by shining a light on what I used to a few years ago as a medical registrar.

The medical registrar is the most senior medical doctor in the hospital out of hours. In explaining to my friends what we do, I tell them everyone who doesn’t need an operation right away, or doesn’t have a baby falling out of them, above the age of 16, is our business (and often we have to look after those too). We were the ubiquitous shirehorses that carried the hospitals medical workload day and night. And here’s a typical night shift I did at a general hospital. (all details changed and adapted from real cases to protect patient confidentiality).

I arrive at 8:50 PM for a 9:00 PM handover. It’s been a busy day and the emergency department is full. The outgoing medical registrar tells me there are no beds in the hospital. There are 10 patients waiting in A&E for the medical team, and a lot of patients need reviewing on the wards. He’s already admitted 36 patients during the day, and the consultant is still there seeing some of them with the daytime doctors. I wave hello at her as I head into the fray. I know the consultant and she’s not seen her kids since her on call week started. She waves back wearily.

My first patient for review was a young man with abdominal pain. My first thought as I walked into his cubicle, he looks sick. This is a skill you develop after years of training, when you look at someone and know that they are minutes from death. He’s grey, clammy and shocked. I immediately set about treating his shock and assessing why this has happened. Does he have a bad infection? Is he bleeding? Does he have a blood clot on his lungs? A quick bedside test confirms he’s bleeding badly, likely internally, and my surgical colleague (another junior doctor) and I urgently arrange for an operation. He hurriedly talks to his parents and completes a inacapacitated patient consent form as his condition deteriorates. I leave him in theatres with the anesthetists and surgeons as I have other patients to see.

The next patient was an elderly woman who has fallen. Although she has no hip fracture, she’s unable to walk and needs admission for painkillers and rehabilitation. I reassure her as best I can and stop many of her medicines potentially making her fall. There are no beds for her on the assessment unit or the elderly care ward, so the A&E sister arranges for a pressure support mattress and bed for her in the department overnight. She was lonely and depressed, and I spend some time talking to her about her worries and fears but after a while I needed to move on. She squeezes my hand and smiles, thanks me and settles for the night.

Next is a resus patient with an asthma attack. He is drunk and abusive verbally, though he’s too breathless to be too abusive. A blood test show his attack is life threatening and he he fights off attempts to treat him by myself and the A&E team, pulling off his nebuliser mask and oxygen. As I read out the blood test result to the intensive care registrar (another junior doctor) the man goes blue in the face, gasps and stops breathing. I drop the phone, run over and take over his breathing with a manual ventilator. He has had a respiratory arrest. Alarms blare, help comes running, we inject him with various medicines to help relax his airways and the intensive care doctor slips a tube into his windpipe to help him breathe. The consultant physician, still there, helps with what she could, running blood tests and helping to scribe in the notes. After a nervous period, he stabilises and we take him to intensive care.

It’s now midnight.

In the meantime I have reviewed five more patients, seen by the twilight team, and also my night SHO has discussed some patients with me. The consultant finally got home around 11PM. I’m now on the wards, a liver patient with severe cirrhosis is unrousable. I read through the notes. He has cirrhosis and is not suitable for a transplant. The team has tried everything. I sit and talk with his family, telling them I’m very sorry but there’s nothing more to be done. They cry, one of them screams at me that I’ve killed him, but I accept this as part of my job. With more assurance they’re calmer and I reassure them he’ll be kept comfortable.

My bleep goes off as I write in the notes. Is that the medical reg? The hospital is now totally full, can you please choose some patients to send to our sister hospital down the road? I groan, although I understand the necessity patients understandably hate it. I pick four stable patients and liaise with the registrar down the road.

2AM. I send my SHO off for a quick break as I review some more patients. A confused elderly man who might have a urine infection, a young man with severe headache, a diabetic patient with a very high blood sugar, a lady withdrawing from alcohol and hallucinating. The A&E sister makes me a coffee, lots of milk, lots of sugar.

3AM. I’m with a man in resus again, he is vomiting bright red blood in large volumes. He is jaundiced and looks unwell, very unwell. As the A&E team arranges for a massive transfusion to be set up, I ring the intensive care doctors and the gastroenterology consultant. He listens and says “I’ll be coming in”. I then slip a line into his neck under local anaesthetic, a practiced skill that’s hard at 3AM when you’re tired, but fortunately successful. We pour blood, clotting products, medications and antibiotics into him to halt the bleeding. The gastro consultant arrives at 3:40 and he’s taken to theatres where he performs a life saving procedure. The patient goes to ITU.

4AM. A brief moment to sit down for a quick break. I have reviewed three more of the SHO’s patients. This is the first time we’ve had a chance to sit down together, a quick chat and a cup of tea was interrupted by a cardiac arrest bleep. We run to the cardiac ward. A 54 year old gentleman admitted with chest pain by the day team has had a sudden cardiac arrest. The excellent CCU nurses are doing CPR and attaching a monitor. I ask them to stop as it’s attached, the rhythm is ventricular fibrillation.

“Back on the chest please, charge defib to 150, charging. OK, off the chest, stand clear, top middle bottom myself, oxygen away, SHOCKING.” The patient jolts. “Back on the chest please.” I heard myself say.

Two minutes later he has a pulse. We repeat an ECG, he’s had a full heart attack. I call the cardiologist at the heart attack centre 10 miles away. He’s accepted and an ambulance crew transfers him for an emergency angioplasty. I send my SHO back to A&E as I write a transfer note.

5AM. The resus doors burst open. Another patient, an elderly woman with breathlessness. The A&E F2 listens to the chest, pulmonary oedema. She’s given the emergency treatment but it’s not working. I decide to start her on positive pressure oxygen. Strapped to her face was a tight mask blowing oxygen to inflate her lungs, buying time for the medicines to work. The plan works and pints of dilute urine fills her catheter bag, her breathing improves and she says thank you through the mask. Despite the fatigue I smile and give the F2 a fist bump for a job well done.

7AM. Four more reviews. a patient with kidney failure due to medications, a depressed young man who took an overdose, an elderly nursing home resident with pneumonia, and an elderly man with a broken hip whom I assess with the orthopaedic surgeon. I start to round up the patients for the ward round. 18 patients overnight, five transfers out, one death. A relatively quiet night. I check with the clinical site manager and SHO that we’ve not missed anyone and click save on the list. No one is waiting to be seen, a good feeling.

8AM. The consultant from last night arrives, she looks tired but asks us how we’re doing. OK we said. We start in A&E as most of our patients are still there, the site manager is worried as some of the patients from last night are coming up to 12 hours in A&E. We review each patient’s story and tests, and talk to them about their condition. We visit ITU for the two new transfers there.

11AM. The ward round of the night patients are done, and I have completed a death certificate for a patient overnight. I climb into my car and listen to the breakfast show as I drive home, an hour away. I’ll be in bed by 1PM , and back for the night shift after 6 hours sleep. A relative luxury from a relatively quiet night.

This would be a relatively quiet night for a junior doctor and I am sure many registrars would laugh at how easy I’ve had it! But the people doing this work are junior doctors, who show dedication, commitment and goodwill beyond belief. They do lifesaving work up and down the country, working hard without complaining and sacrificing time with their families.

Please, I beseech you, treat them fairly and with the compassion they treat others daily. The new contract is not fair, and the extended hours it’ll cause is not safe. ‪#‎notfairnotsafe‬

I hope this little story will give you some insight into the vital work junior doctors and the NHS do. If you like, please come and spend a night at our hospital, I’ll come in with you and show you around. Please talk to my junior colleagues and listen to them, you may be surprised what you’ll learn.

Best wishes,

Dr Philip Lee