Skip to main content

After Pronouncing

The following post is adapted from something I read at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Geriatrics, Palliative, and Extended Care memorial service.  The case has been anonymized to protect confidentiality. 
- Alex Smith @AlexSmithMD

Many of the veterans we care for are fortunate to have family and friends with them during their last days. Some of you are here today.

Some veterans have no family or friends. Over the years, these veterans have either pulled away, or been pushed away, from their loved ones. Let us take a moment to remember the these veterans.

Last year I was asked to come and pronounce that a veteran had died in our hospice unit. I had just taken over for another attending physician and had not met this veteran while he was alive.

“Did he have any friends or family?” I asked. “No,” said our social worker, “we contacted everyone we could reach. We’ve tried for weeks. None of them would come. They are too angry.”

I went in the room. He appeared to be at peace. I conducted my examination. Then it seemed as if there should be more to do, some way to remember him, and acknowledge who he was as a person.

Who would grieve for him? It was obvious that his life had been difficult. He had been homeless. His face bore the ravages of his time on the streets.

Every person, if you go back far enough, was loved, at least by someone in their life. Even if they are not loved now. Before the anger and the arguments and the illness. Before the isolation.

Hopefully, if you go back far enough, a mother held this person, then a child, in her arms and loved him.

I held that thought of this veteran being loved by his mother in my head, as I thought of this poem, by Joan Siegel, about a dying mother.  About the love between a mother and her child.  About how we hold on to memories of our loved ones, take them with us, and leave a part of ourselves behind.

To My Daughter by Joan Siegel

When it comes time
let all the words be spoken
that must be
so that I may take your voice with me
for the next ten billion centuries
mine will be with you
like a packet of letters
handwritten over the years
to unfold anytime
read
hear me speak
in the voice that used to put you to bed
telling the story of all our days
fingered in the retelling
like pages of your books
the best parts dog-eared
pressed smooth by thumbprints
and the refrain of all our nights
as you slipped away
I loved you before dinosaurs 
Even before the stars 

Comments

Ruth Hill said…
How beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I'll recommend we read this at our IDG meeting when we remember our deaths
Touching and beautiful ~ and well worth sharing. Thank you so much!
Anonymous said…
How beautiful. Another friend of mine, also a palliative care doc, has gathered her team in a circle around the bedside of someone who died alone and read aloud a Mary Oliver poem.

Popular posts from this blog

The Dangers of Fleet Enemas

The dangers of oral sodium phosphate preparations are fairly well known in the medical community. In 2006 the FDA issued it’s first warning that patients taking oral sodium phosphate preparations are at risk for potential for acute kidney injury. Two years later, over-the-counter preparations of these drugs were voluntarily withdrawn by the manufacturers.  Those agents still available by prescription were given black box warnings mainly due to acute phosphate nephropathy that can result in renal failure, especially in older adults. Despite all this talk of oral preparations, little was mentioned about a sodium phosphate preparation that is still available over-the-counter – the Fleet enema.

Why Oral Sodium Phosphate Preparations Are Dangerous 

Before we go into the risks of Fleet enemas, lets spend just a couple sentences on why oral sodium phosphate preparations carry significant risks. First, oral sodium phosphate preparations can cause significant fluid shifts within the colon …

Length of Stay in Nursing Homes at the End of Life

One out of every four of us will die while residing in a nursing home. For most of us, that stay in a nursing home will be brief, although this may depend upon social and demographic variables like our gender, net worth, and marital status. These are the conclusions of an important new study published in JAGS by Kelly and colleagues (many of whom are geripal contributors, including Alex Smith and Ken Covinsky).

The study authors used data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to describe the lengths of stay of older adults who resided in nursing homes at the end of life. What they found was that out of the 8,433 study participants who died between 1992 and 2006, 27.3% of resided in a nursing home prior to their death. Most of these patients (70%) actually died in the nursing home without being transferred to another setting like a hospital.

 The length of stay data were striking:

the median length of stay in a nursing home before death was 5 months the average length of stay was l…

Opening the Black Box of LTACs: Podcast with Anil Makam

What happens in Long Term Acute Care Hospitals, or LTACs (pronounced L-tacs)?  I've never been in one.  I've sent patients to them - usually patients with long ICU stays, chronically critically ill, with a gastric feeding tube and a trach for ventilator support.  For those patients, the goals (usually as articulated by the family) are based on a hope for recovery of function and a return home.

And yet we learn some surprising things from Anil Makam, Assistant Professor of Medicine at UCSF.  In his JAGS study of about 14,000 patients admitted to LTACHs, the average patient spent two thirds of his or her remaining life in an institutional settings (including hospitals, LTACs and skilled nursing facilities).  One third died in an LTAC, never returning home.

So you would think with this population of older people with serious illness and a shorter prognosis than many cancers, we would have robust geriatrics and palliative care in LTACs?  Right? Wrong.

3% were seen by a geriatrici…