“When we walk to the edge of all the light …”


Sinéad Donnelly

I am a palliative medicine doctor and recently I have returned to practice acute hospital medicine.  As professionals serving others, doctors train to be aware of their human reactions to events, interactions and people. It is part of the discipline of being a doctor.  From my years of experience I believe this is fundamental to good healing practice, resilience and growth. As Dr Tom Mulholland says in the article:  “You have to live in the moment and practice mindfulness.” (North & South, September 2015, p. 62).

One might expect that Palliative medicine would be one of the principal areas for “compassion fatigue”. Yet it is also potentially a nurturing place for staff, aware of each other and kind to each other. Although compassion is called from us as doctors, nurses, chaplains and allied health staff, we also receive from each other. This mutuality sustains us. This does not automatically happen in a palliative care team, community or unit. It needs to be a conscious value of the team, attended to on a daily basis. We cannot be compassionate and kind to the patient if we are not kind to one another. A buoyancy of life is thus created which sustains us. In this space, although serving those who are dying and witnessing untold grief, we support each other.

Mr W (89) came to the Emergency Department during the night. The night registrar summarized the patient’s story – shortness of breath, attributing it to exacerbation of chronic obstructive airways disease. I met Mr W Saturday morning with Ella the registrar for that day. He was returning from the toilet, sitting now on the side of the bed and breathless. I was unsure how different this was from the time of his admission 6 hours before. I thought he had heart failure. We asked the nurse to give him frusemide. I thought the tracing of his heart (ECG) suggested ongoing damage to his heart. We continued on seeing other new patients.

About an hour later, an alarm bell rang in the Medical Assessment Unit - Bed 23 - Mr W’s bed. The nurse was there. He had just died. I decided immediately that CPR was not appropriate. Ella consoled the nurse who was upset that she had left him just before he died. I phoned his daughter as the identified contact person. She cried, clearly surprised and distressed. She said her mother was just then getting his clothes ready, preparing for him to come home that day.

They arrived about two hours later. His wife in a wheelchair, crying. She was afraid to go into the room where he lay. I encouraged them all to enter the room. Mrs W lifted herself out of the wheelchair by his bedside, leaning over him, almost lying on him, weeping, hugging him, talking to him. My heart was breaking now.  The image of this small lady leaning over this man, her husband of 65 years.

I could not understand why I was so upset after 22 years in Palliative Medicine. I think it is because in acute medicine, unlike Palliative Medicine, you are so close to the front line; because in acute medicine you do not have your Palliative Medicine armour on. The chaos and uncertainty, the surprise factor of acute medicine, render me exposed and vulnerable. “Palliative” comes from the word “pallium” to cloak or shield. But now I know “pallium” used to shield me.

The poignancy intensified. I sent them a card offering my condolences. Mrs W responded, phoning me to request a meeting. “Oh dear,” I wondered ... A week later we sat again in the same room where she had hugged her dead husband. Mrs W said “The nurse phoned me that morning, said S wanted to speak to me”. As the nurse brought the phone to his bedside, “the battery died”.  So they never spoke. She presumed he wanted to tell her to bring in his clothes, that he was going home. So she started to get his clothes ready. Now she wonders did he want to say he loved her. “Is that what he wanted to say…?”

Mrs W thanked me. They all thanked me. My heart was breaking. Acute Medicine – no place for the faint hearted.

Would repeated encounters like that with Mr and Mrs W wear me out and lead to compassion fatigue? Not necessarily. In this story there is a mutuality in the exchanges between us, a give and take, an ebb and flow, an emptying and a filling. I am called to be aware, be alert to all that is happening to the patient, the family and to myself. In that space of being fully present, I am emptied and I am filled.

“When we walk to the edge of all the light you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen: There will be something solid for you to stand on, or, you will be taught to fly.” “Faith” by Patrick Overton - “The Leaning Tree”

Dr Sinéad Donnelly is a Palliative Medicine and Internal Medicine Physician in Wellington.