Killing Cancer

I’m an assistant clinical faculty member at a local university which trains nurse practitioner (NP) students. For me, the next greatest thing to providing patients with Palliative Care, is to teach it. I enjoy teaching immensely and when the NP students rotate with me it’s great to see their growth over a 10 week period. As part of their grade to pass, they must do a reflection project. Although “project” may seem involved, I leave it up to the student to decide what they are going to do. I give them some examples of students who did it during my fellowship, which included poems, photography, water painting, playing an instrument, interpretive dance etc. The only criteria is that it reflects or ties in to what they have learned through the rotation. The following essay was written by one of my students and she gave me permission to post it here.

Killing Cancer

I think “end of life” first registered when I was 9 years old.. I found a copy of Kubler Ross’s On death and Dying in my home. Probably present because of my father’s exposure to his own father’s untimely death at 50 years old. and I preceded to weep on the front porch where my parents found me. “No, Darla, no one is dying.”

The youngest of four. I was really a “Daddy’s Little Girl”. And I think as my parent’s lives and marriage got better, I became their love child that got to explore a better time with them. But shortly after my 12th birthday, in January, 1985, a weekend get-away with my parents was cancelled. Something about dad having headaches and having to go to the hospital.   When my father called from the hospital to tell me the news that our trip was cancelled, I am pretty sure I was enraged and no idea what was in store.

My brother came home that night and said “Don’t worry, Darla, he just has headaches.” The next morning was different. My mother sat me on her lap and told me that “Dad was going to die; he has a brain tumor.” If it wasn’t so sad it would be hysterical. There was no hope, no prayers. Just that. He is going to die. Period.

I got every stuffed animal and poster off my wall to bring to his “bright eyes” at the Mass General Hospital. My mother said his eyes were bright because of the high doses of steroids given to relieve pressure on his brain. They did the craniotomy on January 13: his glial blastoma was too entwined in his brain they told me. It was too twisted together. It was like two hands wrapped together. This tumor resembled his namesake, his own father’s brain cancer. Just a different area of the brain and more aggressive.

They told us he had 9 months to live. Did he and my mother discuss ‘goals of care’? I guess. They made the decision for him to Die at home. This apparently not well-supported by my father’s family. His children, us, watching his last hours and days of life.

At month 8, I went to a friend’s house for a sleepover during which time he declined so rapidly that when I returned that weekend, he was in a wheelchair and was nonverbal.

Once confined to bed, I used to lie in his adjustable bed with him, much like my own children lie with me. And I remember how he smiled when the around-the-clock private duty nurse said, “Look Barney your daughter Darla is here. She is helping to turn you…” I remember those bright eyes shining when he would see Redd Foxx on the TV. It was so innocent and beautiful.

Family came and went. Hurricane Gloria blew into town late September, 1985 and I danced and danced and danced in the wind.

I remember his breathing became shallow and slow. And looked like it might stop. And then it would just start again.   My mother says now that he died Christ-like, saintly. She said he died free from sin. He was just skin and bone.

And at 9 months on October 1st, just as the doctors told us, he died. In our dining room, in an adjustable bed. Holding the precious hands of his namesake, my brother. the only one that was his by his side. He took his final breath.

I awoke to my mother crying and she told me he was gone and I jumped on his adjustable bed and hugged his lifeless body.

My mother, a nurse, said she didn’t sleep for a year. Having to sleep in a day bed close to his adjustable bed for fear that he might get up and fall.

Ironically, hospice, wasn’t popular my mother said. My father missed the Hospice Medicare benefit by one year.

And he also missed Duke University killing Brain Cancer with Polio by 31 years.

I know why it is so important I tell you this story. Because nobody talked about him after he died. I mean nobody. It was too painful for my mother and my older siblings were kind of tuned out. My family kind of fractured after he died. And we have been trying to put it back together ever since.

My siblings and I, we became survivors. In a unique club.

Why is it important that I tell you this? Because life has supported my healing and I have found purpose. I guess a 12-year old doesn’t understand the finality of life. Adults might. There are no videos, no tape recordings of him. Few pictures.

And it shaped me, it led me to be here.

But I found that just like someone who has breast cancer gets involved in the fight. I am getting involved in the fight to support people who are dying that happen to be living. Because maybe if we just start talking about dying, we really won’t miss living.

My dad missed a lot. He missed his son-in-law’s. And you know he really got cheated. He told me he really only had children to have grand-children. And he really missed out on that. But now I get to see his “bright eyes” in my children’s eyes. And I do. And I am so happy that happened. And I am really happy that this happened (rotation in Palliative Care). And I got to be here. Because it is very important. And I tell my children that all the time.

-NP Student


A New Way to Encourage Advance Care Planning

Many of you may have already seen this video, however, from the time I first saw it, I wanted to show anyone that would sit down for a few minutes to watch it. I think we often wonder what’s the best way to disperse important information to the masses and I think ZdoggMD has found that way. Although many of his videos are funny parodies of songs to teach or just to have fun, this is one in which the tone is serious. As those of us who work in the health care field know, advance care planning is not often done. Poor unsuspecting families, unaware of what’s to come during an unplanned medical event, often get blindsided when their loved one is in the hospital. Their loved one is no longer able to make their own decisions and the hospital physicians and staff are looking to them to make difficult medical decisions. Atrocities occur daily in the ICU, especially to people with advanced chronic illnesses or age because the family who is left behind to deal with these issues is feeling an emotional roller coaster of guilt, uncertainty, anger, fear, selfishness and anxiety (to name a few) and are often paralyzed to make difficult decisions. I think the Coalition for Compassionate Care of California (link below), an organization responsible for implementing POLST in California, has done an immense job in actively taking this issue a huge step forward. With the help of the Coalition, National Healthcare Decisions Day (link below), ZdoggMD and countless other organizations and healthcare professionals we can make a change one person at a time. Please share this video with your family, friends and colleagues. A big shout out to #ZdoggMD!

Link: Video “Ain’t the Way to Die”

Link: The Coalition For Compassionate Care Of California

Link: National Healthcare Decisions Day

Trapped In A Nightmare

In this post from the blog Team Jonny, it’s been a week since Jonny died and Jonny’s girlfriend (JGF) writes about her grief. I highly recommend this blog to everyone, especially to those who may be experiencing grief. She’s written several entries after Jonny’s death and she is an open book expressing her raw emotions and feelings. I think most people don’t know how they’re supposed to feel after the passing of a loved one, however, I think learning about the feelings of others in the same situation can help them through the process. By reblogging her entry I hope this will touch and help at least one person who is grieving. Thank you JGF for continuing to share such an intimate piece of your life with us.

Team Jonny

It’s been a week now.
I genuinely don’t know how I’ve done it.
It still feels as raw as it did on the day and, if it’s possible, I miss Jonny more each morning I wake up without him.

I am completely uninterested in a life that doesn’t include Jonny Walker.

Don’t worry, I’m not suicidal! If anything I want to live more than ever before; why would I take my own life when there are people like Jonny who don’t have a choice?

There are people out there who are literally dying to be alive.

No one should ever abuse the gift of existence; it’s a cliché but it’s never been more prevalent to live everyday like it’s you’re last.
Especially for me; I’m going to travel the world. I’m going to work hard. I’m going to follow my dreams and jump into a career that brings me happiness. I’m going…

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The Secret Lives of Doctors

“Doctors worry about you — a lot. Not in a cowering, you-might-be-a-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen way, but more like in a, “Please, Lord, let them heal well despite the fact that they are diabetic and still smoking a pack a day, and though I know it must be hard for them to quit, I’ve asked them to stop so many times” way, or a “That specimen looks worrisome. I hope it will be fine and that they won’t need more surgery. I wonder how long it will take the pathologist to let me know?” way.”

This was an excerpt taken from a great short piece written by Starla Fitch, MD for the Huffington Post (Link). I think it’s very enlightening to the lay community about how doctors think and live their lives with the patient mostly being central to it. Although I did identify with most of the piece, I felt very drawn to the paragraph I quoted above.

As a hospice and palliative care physician I do worry a lot. I worry that I won’t be able to control your loved ones pain or other symptoms. I worry the agitation may be too severe to control. I worry that my intervention may be sedating even though my intent is just to control the pain. I worry that my prognosis of time may be way off, since you have family coming in from all over the country, even though you’ve reassured me that “I’m not God,” and “no one really knows.” I worry that you might panic and call 911 even though your loved ones wish is to die at home. And lastly, I worry that your loved ones death will not be as calm and peaceful as you hope.

Do I worry? Yes I do, but I would choose medicine every single time if I had a chance to do it all over again.

Shine On, My Boy

Very poetic and real entry about the passing of Jonny. I appreciate the author sharing such an intimate part of her and Jonny’s journey with the world. I’m sorry that I have just now discovered this blog. To Jonny’s girlfriend; please know that you and Jonny have helped and will help others who come across your blog to know they are not alone along their journey. To Jonny; Rest in Peace.

Team Jonny

And so the inevitable has come.

At around 10 o’clock last night my gorgeous boyfriend of 3 years slipped away and lost his battle with cancer. He was heavily sedated and the nurses assured us he would’ve felt and known nothing. 

But we felt and saw everything. And it was scary. And painful.

As he got closer to the end his body warmed up, his hands became clammy, his pulse started racing in a last bid attempt to fight. His breathing became shallow and laboured, there was fluid in his chest that bubbled through each inhalation. He struggled to breathe for a few minutes and then he was gone.

They say then when someone dies there is a sense of peace, maybe relief, an overwhelming knowing that the person is no longer there. This is true, from the first sharp intake of breath before the struggle, there was no…

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Palliative Care? But I am not dying!

Great post by Karen Mulvihill DNP, APRN, ACHPN, FNP,ACHPN, Director of Palliative Care Services at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut. Although some patients may have misconceptions about palliative care, while practicing inpatient palliative care, I found that most patients hadn’t heard of palliative care. To help ease their mind about our teams involvement, I used to reassure them by letting them know they would still be cared for by their physicians and hospital staff. Our team was there to provide additional support (physical/psychological/social/spiritual) during their hospitalization. I would use the analogy of an Ice Cream Sundae. The hospital, the physicians and ancillary staff were the Sundae and we were the cherry on top. Whether the cherry is added or not, the sundae is the same. Adding the cherry makes the sundae that much sweeter.

Engaging The Patient

Mulvihill Karen Mulvihill

Guest Contributor: Karen Mulvihill DNP, APRN, ACHPN, FNP,ACHPN – Director of Palliative Care Services, Danbury Hospital

Palliative care has a bad rap and is often underutilized because of the lack of understanding of what it is. Patients panic when they hear “palliative care” and think it means they are dying. But palliative isn’t only for people who are terminally ill, and it is not the same as hospice care. This is a daily discussion I have with patients and families dealing with a chronic life-limiting illness. The first discussion usually centers around why palliative care is not hospice. Palliative care should be part of the treatment plan from the time of diagnosis of an illness through end of life and hospice care. That may be years in some cases!

Palliative care is for ANY patient with a chronic illness who is experiencing a decreased quality of life because…

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Love Locked

Team Jonny

I’m going to write about the past. 
Jonny is very near the end and today is not the day to delve into how that makes me feel. He has not woken up for over 15 hours and when the time comes, he will go. And it will be right. And we’ll be okay. I think.

At the beginning of this year Jonny took me to Paris because I’d never been abroad. After a tricky few months of singledom it was an attempt on his part to win me back. It took me a very long time to decide to go; I thought at the very least I owed him closure on such an intense chapter of our lives.

The whole day was beautiful, we took the Eurostar there and back, running from tourist attraction to tourist attraction in a bid to do ALL OF PARIS in a 10 hour period.

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