I think one of the harder things to do is watch someone suffer. I’m not sure if it’s because it causes us to suffer ourselves, or if it just brings up fears of ourselves being in that situation.

Recently I had a patient with a complicated cancer. She was at our hospice house for an extended time, but clearly began to lose her fight. In those rough days of her body’s transition to dying, she had a lot of symptoms. She was nauseated constantly, with dry heaves frequently, and had pain with any type of movement. Despite all the pills, liquids or IV’s that I suggested for her, she wanted nothing.

Nurses began to fret and suggest maybe I could do something about this refusal of medications. “She’s just lying in there, suffering…” Suggestions ranged from placing a pain patch, to convincing her of the necessity for a subcutaneous site so that medications could be given, despite her refusal.

While the intentions were good, I had to step back a minute.

Who am I to decide for someone the way they should die? While most would think suffering was indicative of a ‘bad’ death, the reality is for some, this is exactly the way they want to go. The number one priority for me as a palliative care physician is not to treat someone the way I want to be treated, or the way YOU want them to be treated, but to treat them the way THEY want to be treated.

Although very difficult, I respected my patient enough to not cajole, convince, persuade or trick her into pain medicine. With every frown, moan or grimace I winced, but in allowing her to do things her way, I witnessed an amazing ability she had to stay present, in mind and spirit, till the last moments of her life.

She died smiling. Her journey may not have been my choice, but it needed to be hers.

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