Monday, September 15, 2008

This evening ...

This evening I sat for about 90 minutes holding the cold hand of an old woman who will most likely die sometime tonight.

We - M who is the patient, and me - were in a mixed sex ward in Homerton Hospital. There is (apparently) no space in the ward for patients who are on the verge of death to be taken - no side room. Instead we had to make do by drawing the curtains around the bed. Beyond the curtains the sounds of everyday hospital life continued as I watched M fight for each breath: visitors talking loudly to friends and relatives; nurses talking loudly - sometimes in English - to each other as they dished out the evening drugs; orderlies banging beds and equipment from here to there; assistants coming round with foul-smelling food ...

M is a proud woman; at some point last night she retied her hair into a bun - an attempt, I assume, to give herself some dignity. She is also a strongly opinionated and quick-tempered woman; I was at her bedside because she is a neighbour I've been helping to look after - she fell out badly with her family, her children, a long time ago and even last night was adamant that they should not be told of her plight: "not until my last fucking breath" in her words.

I would love to say the doctors have been wonderful, but as far as I can tell the only doctors that have seen her are the doctors who admitted her last Friday afternoon, and a doctor doing the rounds this morning who gave her a strong sedative. I would love to say the nurses have been wonderful - and I think that if they had the time, they would be wonderful - but there's only a complement of seven of them on a ward that holds (I think) 18 patients; all the beds were occupied, by the way, and as I was holding M's icy hand I watched as one patient was harried out of her bed (to be transferred elsewhere) and another hustled into the spare slot next to us.

I chatted to the patient across from M as I was leaving. She told me that M had been crying all night: "just kill me now ... please kill me". M has a great fear of death, of the pain of the dying act. I wondered as I was walking home whether the sedative had been to ease her pain, or to ease her fear, or to bring a little peace to the ward. I wondered why they had chosen not to increase the dose just a little ... is M still suffering, but just no longer able to voice her terrors?

When I left, M's breathing was heading towards apnoea - several breaths followed by a long pause. I am no doctor, but I hope that is a sign that her life can be measured in hours rather than days; the thought of being in M's state for days - weeks - in that place ... no, that is not a humane thought.

This is not a humane post ...

Edit: serendipity strikes - we got the phone call from the hospital five minutes after I pressed the 'post' button. Rest in peace, Maisie! You're with your Dad now, and the pain's all gone.


  1. Rik, one day I want to meet you.

    It's a very humane post.

  2. Ditto from me, Rik; it's what the world needs a lot more of, caring and compassion for others.

    Well done, mate.