Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Real World

In her late 30s, she's barely older than either of us, but her body's betrayed her already. Lying in her bed at home, her face is gaunt and gray, her limbs little more than skin-covered bones. Her breaths shallow, laboured attempts at feeding the cells with the oxygen they crave, whilst sunken eyes share their fear and sadness with all those present.

We're there on a mission of mercy. The call is neither an accident or an emergency, but a penultimate journey that no-one wants to be a part of, one where everyone understands its necessity. A hospice bed awaits at the end of this transfer, a gentle room, surrounded by large windows, the other side of which is a beautiful garden, lovingly tended to by a gardener who clearly realises and appreciates the significance of the nature he maintains.

Kara's cancer had almost beaten her. She'd been given weeks to live, and she, her family and their doctor had agreed that she should spend that time with round-the-clock palliative care on hand. There was nothing left to do, other than make those final hours and days more comfortable, as pain-free as possible. Tony, her partner of three years smiled through his tears, making no attempt to hide them as we moved her as gently as we could onto the trolley. Her parents stood either side of the door, a guard of honour testament to her bravery, and whilst her mother's tears flowed, her father's tear-soaked eyes were held back by a stoic dam, ready to burst at any moment.

We wheeled Kara as slowly as we could, feeling every bump almost as much as she did, whilst she'd reassure us.

"It's fine, I know it's not you. I'll get Tony to sue the council". I'm sure the reassurance should have headed in the opposite direction.

Tony travelled with us in the ambulance and brought with him a large pink, flowery case with a few of Kara's things. Pyjamas, some make-up, her favourite books.

"Not really my colour, is it?", he says, as he drags it up the back steps. Kara smiles, and everyone else forces one too, especially Tony.

A few minutes travel down the road, and we arrive at our destination. A suburban setting, hidden in its very own forest, away from prying eyes and the noise of the real world. It's a truly beautiful place, serene but never sombre. The staff have an amazing talent of making everything seem just right, nothing is ever too much effort, from simply spending as much time as needed to make a pillow just right, to attending to all the medical needs.

We wheel Kara into her room, number 3, and help her settle before handing over to the tender and experienced hands of the hospice nurses.

We turn and leave, saying goodbye to Kara, Tony, and her parents, and they in turn thank us for our kindness. Why is it that it's always the people who don't need to say "thank you" who are the first to do so?

We load the trolley back into the ambulance and sit for a while in silence. The radio blares out a song that seems completely at odds with what we've just done and where we are, and we both reach for the off button at the same time. The comedy of hands slapping each other breaks the tension, and we leave the grounds, back out onto the main road and into the real world.

Two weeks later we were back there, taking another patient to be cared for, just for a while. In her late 80s this time, Lira was going into respite to give her equally elderly husband some time alone, time to care for himself a little.

"It's just a week, Lira", he tells her, "just some time for me to tidy the house properly for you". He looks exhausted, and explains that he'll be living with their son for the week, just as a break, so he can go back to looking after her as soon as she's home.

Elaine, one of the nurses, directs us. "Second room on the left".

"Isn't that room number 3?" I ask.

"That's the one. Beautiful view of the gardens", she adds, turning to Lira as she does so.

"We know it". We look at each other and think back to the previous fortnight.

And back to the reality of the real world.


Aled said...

We do a lot of this kind of thing as a St John HDS crew. A lot of the jobs we get are taking people into hospital, where you can often be buoyant and joyful - they're off to be healed!

Perhaps our most heart-wrenching job was taking an elderly lady home to her family to die. Her tearful and thankful husband would not let us leave until, after hearing we were volunteers, he'd given us a donation towards St John Ambulance. Try as I might, he refused to let us leave until we took it.

Why is it that those that dont' need to give thanks are the ones that do so vehemently?

Lizzie said...

Been there, done that - it sucks. It's strange how attached you can get to patients in the short time that you transport them for.

Anonymous said...

Aled, Lizzie - we appreciate it because it's what our loved ones want.
The macmillan nurses helped us fight the hospital to get mother in law home (I think they were worried about her dying in transfer) and we were all rewarded by the huge smile as she saw her garden through the conservatory double doors, and the family gathered there with her.
It's heart-wrenching for us too, but in a good way, even at the end.