By my sister Emma:
My weekend night shifts loomed large again, exhausted, I made my way to work. It was lovely, I had the pleasure of looking after a quite fabulous 88 year old. I was on the high dependency unit
as they were short staffed, so it made a lovely change to look after someone awake and doing fairly well. As I brushed her thinning grey hair and washed her fragile translucent skin, wrinkled and beautiful, she looked at me with her piercing blue eyes and told me about her husband; 94 she said! He’s coming in tomorrow, he’s gorgeous, he looks about 64! We giggled and I told her about my family and showed her picutures of the small people. I couldn’t help but wonder as she slept, her oxygen humming, her monitor beeping showing her heart, limping along, what it would have been like to have a Mum age and die ‘normally.’ I hope Mum never sees 88 with this bastard disease, that would surely be unbearable. I often wonder about the ethical and moral implications of Intensive Care Units, it’s my career, for now, but I often struggle with the implications and futility of what we do. Is it right to flog an 80 year old on a ventilator whose quality of life will never be the same after a prolonged ICU stay? I don’t know, and thank goodness it’s not my job to make those vital decisions. Often comfort, peace, dignity and being surrounded by family and loved ones is a beautiful thing and it is a privilege to care for a person who is taking their last breaths. We are all dying, most of us just don’t know when. I came across a fabulous consultant while a green nursing student, he used to be an intensivist, but switched his specialty to palliative care. Acute medicine, he said, is often cruel and futile. I think he was right, once we accept that death is coming for us all, we can face it, plan, prepare and communicate.
On my weary way home I finished my book – ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi, tears streaming down my face, I was glad it was a quiet Sunday morning. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so. The memoirs of a celebrated young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer and his quest to unearth what makes life meaningful, subsequently facing his own mortality. ‘Everyone succumbs to finitude,’ he writes, his cancer metastasising in his lungs. ‘Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.’
I often wonder if I do enough, I could surely achieve so much more, my life potentially much more fulfilling and meaningful. I don’t want to die wondering if I made the most of this. Sometimes I feel stifled by boredom, the day to day toddler and baby demands. As I clean thrown food off the floor for the third time of the day, pick up strewn pants, wash the husbands cycling gear, have another sleepless night about money, I dream about travelling again, finding a new career; maybe I could be in a period drama (!) going to the pub with my friends and talking, really talking, going to a museum instead of the sodding sandpit. But I know this is fleeting. My children and family give me profound joy and I am truly grateful. I remember Mum having these battles, overhearing arguments about how much cleaning she had to do and how she’d rather go out to work, and that she did. I hope in her lucid moments she feels a sense of fulfillment and is proud of her contribution to this world. And it must be noted (Dad!) that if she gets meaning and comfort from cleaning the sink for the 6th time of the day and filling the sink with hot water, again, then we must let her.