As I get ready for my first day rotating in palliative care, I wonder what is in store?
What am I going to experience? At this point in my academic career, I have a general idea of what palliative care is, but what I'm not sure of is how it will actually manifest itself. After only a few minutes meeting the team and discussing the day, my initial thoughts are why isn't this, palliative care, something that is more common? Why isn’t this being used across all healthcare settings?
As with any other day, my mind is always on the move, constantly analyzing each and every situation, like a good future clinician should do. It drifts to the emotional aspect of medicine, the human element, and that truly connecting with each and every patient can be a means of showing them that they are the only ones who matter during my time with them. I realize now that palliative care is what I’ve been searching for as my medical career begins to take shape.
Looking back, it's interesting to think about that very first day. I don't think Dr. Tim, a family friend who I've known for years, or myself knew what was in store for us that day. The time I got to spend with Dr. Tim and his team has dramatically influenced my life. At the time I may have not known it, but Dr. Tim was my mentor to be.
After a few hours rounding in the hospital and learning some of the ins and outs of palliative care -what it can do and offer - we went to visit one of the local hospice houses.
Our first patient of the day wasn't much older than 35. She had stage 4 metastatic cancer, meaning it had spread throughout her body and was taking over - a terminal diagnosis. At the time, she was surrounded by her mother and father, her husband, and their 6-year-old daughter.
We got the call that morning to come and visit her. The staff noticed she was becoming more and more unresponsive. As we entered the room Dr. Tim introduced me to the whole family and explained that I was a student visiting for the day and asked if it was OK if I sat in on their visit. It is important to note I vividly remember the look of the young daughter, lying in bed next to her mother, holding her hand, unsure of what exactly was transpiring. The conversation with the family that ensued was not what I was expecting at all. We talked. We listened. We shared. We talked all about their lives and the life of the beautiful young woman whom we were all there to see. We talked about the things she enjoys; we discussed her passions, dreams, and motivations. We cried. We laughed. We connected. Shortly after our conversation, our young mom stopped breathing, stopped responding completely. Dr. Tim went over to feel for a pulse and confirmed that she had passed away. She was surrounded by those she loved and those who loved her most.
As I'm trying to make sense of all that had just occurred and manage my emotions as well as help the family deal with the tragic loss, something I will never forget transpired. The husband, distraught and ridden with sadness simply left, he mentally could not comprehend the loss of his beloved wife. I looked to Dr. Tim, both of us unsure what to make of the father’s swift exit.
Without hesitation, Dr. Tim picked up the little girl and held her close; he explained to her what had happened to her mommy. He said “let's go over and hold mom's hand one more time”. He set her down and she snuggled with her mom, falling asleep in mom's arms for the last time.
The thoughtfulness and care that went into the situation with this little girl is hard to put into words. He explained to her that even though she may no longer see her mom how she remembers, she should know that her mother would always be with her. She will be with her wherever she goes, in whatever she does. She can talk to her mom anytime. All she has to do is to look up and picture her mommy and she will be right with her.
Next Dr. Tim and I consoled the mother and father. Strikingly, their response was something I was not
prepared for. They hugged us. They thanked us. They were so grateful for what Tim and I had done for them. In this time of grieving and loss and pain and heartache, they couldn't help but share how grateful they were that we were there, that we could help them on this journey.
It took me a long time to realize how much I had affected their lives in such a short amount of time. It was hard to understand at first how they could be so grateful for all that I'd done in the 10 minutes I had known them. How had palliative care influenced their life so greatly? And then it hit me. It was because I took the time to connect, to listen, and to hear their stories. They shared their daughter’s life with me and told me all of the great things that she had done. This simple connection is what made all the difference – for them and myself. There was no medicine, no treatments, or any cure. I met them where they were on their journey and truly listened.
By connecting with individuals and giving them the time to discuss whatever is on their minds allowed me to broaden the scope of medicine and reach them on a level that medications, diagnostics, or treatments could not.
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