Life, not death

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My nursing studies in palliative care came later than Dr Bob Scott, who wrote in favour of assisted suicide (Friends of The Scotsman, 22 April). Palliative care taught me the complete opposite. Patients routinely hung on the medics’ and the nurses’ words: “Another month… I have a grandchild I want to meet… I promised my daughter we would have Christmas together…” tended to be what I heard patients requesting. More life, not death.

As a staff nurse in oncology and then hospice work, I don’t remember any specialist training in dying. I also don’t remember feeling the need for specialist training, unlike Dr Scott. I had always been reminded that this “job” was not just about me feeling adequate and free from failure. I don’t have the definitive professional answers to deal with death. Sometimes talking to dying patients about how their football team did the night before was the best strategy.

There is a level of competency and compassion that is necessary for medical and nursing staff to provide, and we are fortunate to have great palliative care. It is arrogance, however, to think the dying experience can be controlled. Sometimes the dying person has their psychological needs met by the cleaning staff, the catering staff, the volunteers or the chaplains. That’s why palliative care services run with “make every minute count” as it is a dynamic time for a dying individual.

If doctors feel they are “failing their patients” as Dr Scott suggests, the last thing needed is to change the law to kill those troubled patients. Perhaps they should evaluate their own issues with the dying process – a process which is part of life – not seek a commodified and sanitised death based on, “Well, if we don’t have the answers who will?”. In any event, it is the nurses and the auxiliaries who spend most time with patients.

My memories of hospice work are of patients having spontaneous sing-songs, tears of frustration, bad moods, relief and acceptance. I guess you could call it “life”.

Rachel McKenzie

South Oswald Road

Edinburgh