All in One Day: three stories from medics and carers working at Christmas

For many of us work is winding down and we’re getting ready for the fun and festivities of Christmas. Even if we don’t celebrate, some time off comes as a welcome break at the end of another busy year. Food, holidays, gifts and sales have become synonymous with the season of joy and goodwill but contrary to the adverts on TV, over-eating, over-spending and over indulging aren’t what Christmas is really all about.

This post shares three short stories from medics and carers who’ll be having a very different kind of Christmas. After reading this I hope like me you’ll spare a thought for everyone who epitomises the true meaning of Christmas, “giving up one’s very self to think only of others…”

The Nurse

“I know I can’t make them love their baby. I know I can’t ignore a baby at risk. And even though I know it’s absolutely the right thing – because it isn’t safe for a child to be there – I still feel bad for all of them. Removing a child is a last resort and a whole panel is involved. But the parent(s) blame me anyway, and when that happens it makes me feel like I failed.”

After working with a young mother, her on/off partner and their very young son, The Nurse assessed the home environment was unlikely to improve. Domestic abuse and extensive drug use surrounded the teen mum. By default, it surrounded her young son too. On a grey, wet December day The Nurse took part in care proceedings – something she finds stressful but all too frequent in her type of role – knowing her evidence might lead to removal of the child, possibly for fostering or adoption. Two previous children had already been placed in care. “When the meeting finished, she (the mother) was emotionless about her son. It was if he didn’t exist. Afterwards she mouthed “you did this” and the look she gave me, it was withering. I know I did the right thing, but I just keep asking myself what more could I have done?”

The Carers

“We’ve worked every Christmas and New Year for over ten years. It’s difficult to get cover at Christmas, but peoples’ care can’t suddenly stop. We work because our clients still need washing, dressing and breakfast. They need a friendly face who’ll arrive again at lunchtime, make sure they’re clean and make sure they take their medicine alongside lunch. Then we’re back again in the evening, wash and change the client, and get them safely tucked into bed. Put the dirty laundry into wash so it’s ready for the morning, make sure the client is settled, turn off the lights and then head home. If we’re lucky we’ll be back by 11pm.”

The Carers work from today until New Year’s Day without a break. They’re out on the road at 6.30am every morning, get a couple of short breaks if they’re lucky and their shift ends around 10.30pm. They visit multiple clients with a range of care needs. “This job doesn’t suit everyone. Sometimes clients can be difficult because of their illness, sometimes they’re very confused or upset. There’s a lot of poo to clean up as well, but you just get on with that! Very often we’re the only people some of our clients will see this side of the New Year. So it might mean finishing after midnight, but we give some extra time. No one wants to feel alone over Christmas, do they.”

The Medic

“What an afternoon: one person has chest sepsis, another person had a huge upper GI bleed and nearly arrested, another has critical stenosis of their cartoid arteries. None of them will be well enough to go home for Christmas. I felt completely frazzled at the end of my shift today, and this afternoon really impacted my mood. Working in a major hospital is rewarding but it’s also challenging and this all happened on the ward, not in A&E. We are short staffed, which doesn’t help.”

The Medic’s ideal Christmas this year would be a peaceful one with as little stress as possible, a chance to unwind, sit down for more than ten minutes to eat lunch, and catch up on sleep. “Yesterday I had to tell a family their loved one was dying and probably wouldn’t make it to Christmas. Everyone thinks it’s a happy time of the year, but it isn’t happy for everyone. Inevitably some of that stays with you.”

Advertisements

Chrestotes: the quality of kindness.

Someone once told me a cancer diagnosis is the fastest way to find out who your friends are.  True friends will shine day and night while fakes become increasingly conspicuous by their absence. When your world shakes over twenty on the Richter scale another earth shattering revelation – you’ll be abandoned by people you care about – is almost as shocking as the diagnosis itself.  I remained open-minded and hopefully optimistic while chemotherapy dissolved more than just the cancer.

Three years on I’d love to report that my optimism was well placed, the advice proved invalid and all my friendships remain intact but I can’t.  I’d like to share an explanation for the disappeared friends but I can’t do that either because they evaporated into the ether like the crew of the Mary Celeste. I guess cancer is still too much for some people to deal with.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Aviary Photo_130718654939381437The other part of the prophesy – true friends will shine day and night – is equally true.

They shone, they shine and they keep on shining 🙂

I feel very fortunate to have true friends who are hugely supportive, thoughtful and encouraging.  They demonstrate all of the qualities of chrestotes: compassion, consideration, sympathy, humanity and kindness.

They’ve sent messages for a speedy recovery, cards, flowers and gifts. I am touched and overwhelmed by their continued kindheartedness and support and I feel extremely lucky to know such genuine, compassionate and beautiful human beings.

I’ve also received cards and good wishes from family friends – people who know of my trials and tribulations via my father and decided to lend their support. My hopeful optimism wasn’t entirely misguided because family friends, friends of friends and complete strangers have all proven amazingly kind.

Of course a post about kindness would be incomplete if I failed to mention my father.  For as long as I can remember he has devoted his life to help others yet his own life has been far from easy. A lesser person might have become peevish and resentful – my father isn’t.  Throughout the process of diagnosis, surgery, treatment, recovery, first prophylactic surgery, recovery, the recent second prophylactic surgery and this new period of recovery my father has been an inspiration – encouraging, supportive, wise and humorous (he has an excellent sense of humour and sometimes laughter really is the best medicine…)

The kindness shown by my family and true friends will never be forgotten. It buoyed me through some very difficult experiences and continues to inspire me on a daily basis. WP_20150320_010I am so very grateful to you all.

Misguided, 10 Myths & Missing the Point

Those of us unlucky enough to be on the breast cancer merry-go-round know all too well that the Media has a strong role to play in raising awareness. It has an equally strong role in conquering a number of misguided, often serious misrepresentations of the truth.

Sadly much of the Press around breast cancer either sexualises or trivialises the disease by portraying it as an “easy” cancer from which we’ll all almost certainly be “cured” and go on to live long, healthy lives. (Myth 1).  A short detour into the land of all things pink and plastic is nothing more than a minor inconvenience for which we receive plenty of help and support (Myth 2).  Post-treatment we’re duty bound to be happy about our good fortune and can celebrate how incredibly lucky we’ve been since developing the “best” kind of cancer (Myth 3).  We’re cured (Myth 4) so can spend plenty of time flaunting freshly reconstructed, completely flawless (Myth 5) new “boobs” that are sure to be the envy of all our friends.

This quick, simple and largely painless path from diagnosis through surgery, neo-adjuvant or adjuvant treatment (Myth 6) and on into the realms of pretty-pink, happily ever after la-la land (Myth 7) is one I’m sure my friends with breast cancer all recognise and are, like me, so very pleased about. Breast cancer is a highly desirable form of cancer and of course we’d wish for it because it’s better by far than other types of cancer. We’re very “lucky” don’t you think? (Myth 8)

No. I’m sorry to disappoint but this is not a disease anyone should ever wish for.

Unfortunately the Media recently helped perpetrate another misguided appeal that misses the point about cancer by a country mile. An advertising campaign for pancreatic cancer helps further the myths that breast cancer, or prostate cancer for all the guys out there since breast cancer is an exclusively female disease (Myth 9), is a “good” kind of cancer.  It’s so good that it’s obvious we’d all chose breast, skin or prostate cancer given chance to select from the smorgasbord of available human cancers running rampage through our world. Those kinds of cancer are so much better for us should we feel the need to acquire some form of the disease (Myth 10).

Having lost a colleague and friend to pancreatic cancer several years ago I understand the stark reality of that particular form of this insidious disease. There’s nothing good about it and survival rates are low because it’s often discovered late, when locally advanced or already metastasized to other areas of the body. When diagnosed early the outlook for pancreatic cancer is often very poor and I fully agree that further research, better diagnostics and improved treatment regimes are all desperately required.

However I also have a long standing, close-up and personal relationship with breast cancer so will offer thoughts for those – including advertising companies and the Media – who might think it’s “easy,” “curable” or presents a “better choice.”  I urge you to consider the following then tell me that you’d wish to have breast cancer (or any other cancer that might be worth wishing for) if you’re given a choice:

  • You BRCA negative but you’ve lost at least five generations of women in your family to breast cancer, all before the age of 50. Each woman lived healthily pre-cancer, went through extensive and life-threatening treatment yet still developed metastasis within a few years of initial diagnosis… Will you choose to invite this disease into your life or the lives of those in your own family?
  • You never met your Grandmother, she died of breast cancer when your Mother was 5 years old. As a teenager you watch your Aunt (in her 30’s) go through surgery, radio and chemotherapy. A couple of years later she’s in palliative care, steadily succumbing to brain and bone metastases that eventually break her hip causing unimaginable pain for the last few weeks of her life… Does this sound like a better option than other forms of cancer?
  • At 23 you see your Mother endure surgery, radio and hormone therapy. She then faces surgery and chemo for secondary liver, ovarian and bowel cancer. You’re sitting at her hospital bedside, she’s encountered yet more side effects and as you talk a treatment induced blood clot drifts into her lungs. Panic ensues and you’re ushered away. Some time later, you’re unsure how long because your head’s spinning and your heart threatens to break through your ribcage, you hear the words “I’m sorry.”  In your final moments with your Mother she’s desperately gasping for breath and has time to realise something’s terribly wrong. Decades later that image, the noise and the violence of her death are indelibly etched on your psyche… Are you going to vote for breast cancer now?
  • You’re 41 have a teenage son and partner to support. You worked your socks off for over 20 years as you’re the only source of income. Despite regular screening you’re diagnosed with aggressive, invasive HER2+ breast cancer. Your life disintegrates in a matter of months, long-term friendships, your livelihood and your son’s mental health all dissolve. You undergo gruelling treatment for 18 months that causes persistent side effects and no guarantee of success. Your family knows this as well as you do…. Can you imagine finding any of this easy?
  • You begin rebuilding knowing you’re at high risk of recurrence in the next 3 years, need to make it past 5 years and even then the spectre of breast cancer can resurface with a vengeance 20+ years later. You avoid looking at your mutilated body, your confidence wanes and though your hair’s back your scars remind you that you’ll always be a cancer patient. The physical scars are ugly, the psychological scars are worse … Answer honestly, are you still going to wish for breast cancer?

I think you’re going to say no.

No sentient being wishes for hell on earth and that’s exactly what breast cancer is, creates and leaves behind.

Perceiving one form of cancer as more desirable, easier, curable or survivable is misguided. It completely misses the point because there is still no cure for cancer and that includes breast cancer.  It is not a disease to wish for under any circumstances and the sad fact is that men and women across the globe die of breast cancer every day.  As with most forms of cancer if it’s diagnosed late the prognosis is poor but even when diagnosed early (node negative), breast cancer can creep on via micro-vascular invasion taking hold in the brain, bones, liver, lungs or skin at any point.  Treatment is no less gruelling than for other forms of cancer and contrary to misguided Press stories success isn’t guaranteed. Statistics have improved thanks to increased awareness and earlier diagnosis but far too many lives are cut short, often young women in their 30’s and 40’s.  Irrespective of type, cancer is a complex illness and outcomes depend on a myriad of interdependent factors including age, genetics, chemical and environmental considerations most of which remain poorly understood. Geographical location and cultural norms also have huge implications for diagnosis and survival, something Doctors in many African and Asian countries know only too well.

It’s unlikely people like Claire, Cancer in My Thirties or The Sarcastic Boob would wish for breast cancer given any choice in the matter. My Aunt and Mother are no longer here but I’m 99.99+% certain it wouldn’t have made their wish lists either. Unsurprisingly I did not wish for it (it came anyway) and I would never wish it for anyone else. As a sentient being I know what a god-damned awful disease this is, what it does, its consequences and all the things it ruins, breaks or takes away.

Wishing for one form of cancer over another is sadly misguided, misinformed and missing the point. Happily ever after breast cancer remains a myth in too many cases so please think very carefully. A wish for breast cancer is not the same as a carefree, pain free, cancer free life. The treatments are very challenging and you may still end up with just a few months to live. The seven point truth is this:

  1. Cancer, including breast, skin and prostate, is a killer.
  2. There are significant outcome implications based on where in the world you live.
  3. Incidence rates are rising.
  4. We are all in need of a cure.
  5. Prevention must be our ultimate aim.
  6. Cancer research requires improved funding and continued support.
  7. Many more will die before cure or prevention become global norms.

Snowdrops in Fresh Pastures

Monthly Peace Challenge – Party On Garth!

This is the final B4Peace challenge of 2013 and before getting in the party spirit I want to reflect on why Bloggers for Peace captured my heart so easily. I want to live a peaceful life, one where compassion, understanding and acceptance prevail. But I’d like more than that. I’d like amity, kindness and tolerance for all humanity.  It may be a big ask but we’re in the 21st Century, allegedly ‘civilised,’ so we ought to be able to achieve it. Recent re-runs of Star Trek (I’m a geeky sci-fi type) drew my attention to an ongoing unpleasant truth about humankind. Whilst some of us are kind many are not. 200,000 years worth of evolution has yet to abate all our more primitive, combative and intolerant behaviours. We still abuse, torture and kill a variety of other animals as well as members of our own species. That’s not a great advertisement for humanity.  An alien visiting today would find we haven’t improved much since the 1960’s when Star Trek’s aliens thought humans were too aggressive and dispassionate to play any role in the wider universe.

We can change this. If more of us say no to violence, oppression and ignorance we will have a kinder, more supportive and understanding society. We can change this if we want it badly enough and accept 200,000 years of fighting isn’t something to be proud of. We can change this if we educate our children to love themselves and one another, irrespective of differences whatever they happen to be. If  we don’t stand up for peace, compassion, tolerance and understanding who else will?

OK, so now it’s time to party. This party can be a rave or casual dinner party, a picnic or a peace-walk, celebrate in whatever way suits you best because everyone is invited and we’re going there virtually.

Our location is an arboretum, to remind us we are just one of many species on this planet with a right to live life fully, compassionately and peaceably. The words of the great peace-makers of our world whisper from the branches of every tree and if you listen you’ll hear songs like Imagine, Get Together, Peace Train and Love is All Around. You’ll also hear laughter, lots of laughter, because people from all walks of life are celebrating.

We’ve given peace a chance and it’s paying off, travelling around the world faster than stories about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.  All the dollars we used to spend on war (or protecting against war) have been redirected to humanitarian causes. So we’re closer to ending poverty, curing cancer, dementia and other degenerative illnesses, and we’re about to solve the problem of homelessness for all those sleeping without shelter this winter. We’ve made more progress than at any time in our history because we stood up for peace. Join the party, make it happen  🙂

b4p3

party

peaceparty

 

Thanks is reward enough

This week has already been busy yet its only Wednesday.  Perhaps its true that time speeds up as we get older 😉  I’m not sure how I worked full-time, studied part-time, had a family, ran a home and travelled extensively while still finding time for the odd TV programme.  Somehow I managed to squash it all in to 168 hours a week for the past 20 years… maybe that’s why I have wrinkles and white hair?!

 

I’m prone to packing as much as possible into the time available and I’ve been this way for longer than I care to remember.  The volume of activities occupying my life are largely of my own doing.  I could’ve given up studying, been less committed to my career or switched my phone off every night but I’m fairly sure I’d have found other ways to occupy my time. I’m fairly sure that my desire to live each day to the full stems from being very aware that reaching retirement isn’t something everyone gets to do.   If I’m one of those people I want to make sure I haven’t wasted too much time slobbing about when I could’ve been doing something useful.

 

My train journey on Monday was meant to be an uneventful opportunity to catch up on some reading and start researching education technologies in more depth.  As it happened the train was delayed by over 45 minutes and I gained a companion for much of the journey.  I’m not sure if it’s the fact that I’m a middle-aged woman, look unlikely to rob anyone or that I appear to know how to deal with technology that makes me seem non-threatening to elderly women travelling alone.  Whatever it is I don’t mind because I’m quite happy to sit and talk to older women as a means to pass the journey for both of us. This week was no exception.

 

An elderly lady joined me at Oxford and we spent the rest of the journey holding an impromptu lesson on how to get the best from an iPad, how to join train or other WiFi services and options for mobile connectivity.  The lady was 81 years old. She told me she was paying (a rather large sum) for weekly one-to-one lessons from Apple.  After an hour and a half on the train she said she’d gained far more from our time together and thanked me for helping her. She wanted to know how I managed to get through life this way, giving up my time to complete strangers whilst neglecting whatever I needed to do. She wanted to know how I could go through life being so kind.

 

The lady’s observations threw me a little.  I don’t find helping strangers unusual and if sharing some knowledge makes another person’s life easier then so much the better.    I would like to think that if I’m old and in need of assistance one day someone will devote a little time to help me.  I smiled at the lady and told her I come from a family where helping others is part of our DNA;  we grew up knowing kindness costs nothing yet makes a world of difference.  I helped her take her suitcase from the train, wished her a pleasant day and was about to set off to meet friends for lunch when the lady stopped me.  She said she still found it hard to see how I get through life being so kind to others and asking nothing in return. I told her it was my pleasure, no trouble at all (I was just sharing knowledge after all) and wished her well. Making her happy,  a little more technology-aware and receiving her words of thanks were reward enough for me 🙂

 

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...

 

 

 

Peace at Home: Monthly Peace Challenge

 

forpeace6June’s bloggers for peace challenge asks us to consider peace in relationships or peace in the home. I’m running late with this post simply because there’s so much that could be said and distilling it into a few paragraphs needed some thought.

Friedrich Schiller said “Peace is rarely denied to the peaceful.”  This, I think, is true.

As humans we have a vast array of behaviours and attitudes that enable us to cause chaos in the home, in the community or even on a global scale.   These behaviours and attitudes result in pain and distress for all involved, they drive fear, hatred and cause unnecessary destruction. Fortunately we also have the ability to be tolerant, compassionate and patient and these human traits help bring balance to our world.

Being at peace with someone else – partner, sister, neighbour, colleague – can only happen when we have inner peace. So our quest for peace in relationships must begin by making peace with ourselves. Here are some thoughts on achieving inner peace so that we have space to fully appreciate the lives of others and in doing so build enduring, engaging relationships:

1. Acceptance. To achieve inner peace we have to accept ourselves for who we are; tall, short, portly, slim, serious, fun-loving, diligent or self-critical we are the sum of all our experiences to date and we’ll continue to be shaped by the things that are yet to happen. Acceptance puts us at ease with our physical presence, our personal characteristics and our abilities. Acceptance also gives us room to develop at our own pace instead of chastising ourselves for the absence of things we have yet to master.

2. Kindness. If you cannot be kind to yourself, how can you possibly be kind to someone else? Practice being kind to yourself, to offer praise instead of criticism. We all have an inner voice or self-talk, what’s yours saying? Encourage it to be kind, to accept who you are and be glad of this life. We’re all worthwhile, we all have value and we’re all loveable so stop doubting, be kind and keep that inner voice positive.

3. Forgiveness. Being human means making mistakes. We are learning creatures and we learn by getting things wrong. In order to let others learn we have to forgive their mistakes… The same is true for ourselves. Practice the art of forgiveness by forgiving yourself for your mistakes, learning from them and moving on. Dwelling on the past doesn’t change it but learning from it makes for a better future.

4. Thinking. Take time to think, reflect and consider. Modern society rarely offers the opportunity to stop doing. We are in perpetual motion and often have no idea why. Stop doing and take some time out to think, reflect and consider. If the things you’re doing aren’t bringing peace, happiness and fulfilment stop doing them. Change is always possible and life is too short to live every day in misery.

When we have inner peace we’re comfortable in our own skins, we accept who we are and acknowledge our achievements. We give ourselves permission to make mistakes and learn by doing so. We’re aware consciously and sub-consciously that what we’re doing makes us feel happy and fulfilled. The  principles for inner peace are also the basis of  strong effective relationships – acceptance, kindness, forgiveness and thoughtfulness.

Why try to change your partner,  accept who they are and they’re more likely to accept you.

Why be unkind when we can give encouragement and offer praise just as easily.

Why hold grudges when they anchor us in the past? Forgive and move forward.

Why keep absent-mindedly doing when thinking and thoughtfulness are the true path to contentment?

Peace in relationships is dependent on inner peace, work for that and bringing peace to any relationship will be seamless and meaningful.

 

PS. Acceptance, kindness, forgives and thoughtfulness = love 🙂

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

English: Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Fragile

Life is fragile and to serve as a reminder someone knocked down my ten-month old kitten this morning.  I live on a quiet lane in the countryside and found Caspar in the hedge with a dislocated jaw and fractured skull.  The impact had completely dislodged his right eye so I’d say whoever hit him was travelling pretty fast. His injuries suggest he died very quickly which is the only consolation I can take from the incident.

When my neighbour’s husband developed dementia three years ago she reluctantly moved him into a care home because she was frightened he’d get knocked down. He’d lost his ability to react to passing vehicles, even slow ones, and would let himself out of the house to wander in the lanes at any time of day or night.  She said he’d always been an outdoors man and it seemed walking still held some kind of connection for him, it calmed his spirit and made him smile.  The decision to confine him in a care home twenty miles away caused my neighbour significant distress.  They’d been married for over 40 years and never before had a day apart but the fear of finding him dead or seriously injured in a hedgerow was more than she could bear.

Whenever I see my neighbour I ask how her husband is.  She tells me he is physically well but quickly fading away from her; she can barely communicate with him now. Her eyes are sad and they betray her thoughts.  Memories of happier times mixed with guilt because he’s no longer at home; the continual grief that accompanies a woman forced to watch helplessly while the man she’d called her soul-mate slips further and further from reach.  My neighbour was right to be concerned for her husband’s safety; a handful of people drive as if they’re in the Monza Grand Prix and they’d never stop in time to avoid a confused gentleman who is too unsteady to quickly step away from the single-track road. I feel desperately sad for her and for her husband even though he’ll never know it.

Caspar followed me everywhere and was especially keen on sitting in the greenhouse while I tended the plants.  You can see him in the photos below.  In the evenings Caspar and his brother Newton curled up together in the cat basket even though they were growing too big to share; one cat had to sleep on top the other.  Tonight Newton is wandering around unable to settle and staring at the back door as if his brother should be here already. The kittens were inseparable but a twist of fate means Newton has to adjust to being alone just like my neighbour is trying to adjust.  She’d give anything to have her husband back at home but can’t provide round the clock care or keep him safe from dangers he’s no longer able to recognise.

Life is so very fragile, far too fragile to take for granted.