Tuesday, 3 November 2009

A Final Courtesy

My lovely Mum is in hospital - in a ward for people with terminal cancer. She is one of the lucky ones. She has a tumour wrapped around her spine and spinal cord that caused so much pressure it fractured a vertebrae and threatened paralysis. Despite a late diagnosis, an emergency course of highly targeted radiotherapy has shrunk the tumour enough for her to sit in a chair today, albeit with a body harness. We are now talking about her eventually being able to come home.

I don't know exactly what the statistics in her hospital ward are, but very many of the people who enter this ward, never leave it and don't stay long. There's much talk of pain management and end of life planning.

It's a fairly extraordinary place. On one level it's like a military battlefield casualty station. The critically wounded from the battle of life are stretchered in, and the medical staff do all they can. They know that the limits of medical science mean that tragically what they can do, is often limited.

But it's not an obviously desperate place. The medical staff move around cautiously, and purposefully. They listen intently and speak sensitively, not just with their patients, but with their often shattered and fearful relatives.

To a casual observer the circumstances that the people here find themselves in, would not be too obvious. It would be easy to underestimate the gravity of the situation.

But there are signs.

There's the drinks trolley - Every evening a lady appears around the ward with a trolley laden with bottles of spirits which she dispenses to patients and, when it helps, to visitors.

And there's the quiet intensity on people's faces, and the dignity and courtesy and understanding with which the patients communicate with one another and their visitors - making every moment count.

My Mum had a conversation with another lady a couple of days ago. One of those deep and meaningful conversations that complete strangers can sometimes have when they share a very similar burden.

She managed to get a note to my Mum yesterday afternoon - just saying how much she enjoyed their talk and thanking her for sharing some precious moments with her.

And then she died.


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