Up until a week ago she was still driving her camry.
Up until two days ago she was still walking briskly up her stairs. Up until an hour ago…
End of life can come quickly, with subtle warnings. Soon, breath becomes air.
I have had the great privilege this past week to sit for hours at the bedside of my dearest 97 year old granny, Alieta. A remarkable human who came of age in the prairies during the Great Depression, ably raised four children and continually brought them and the 12 grandkids together. Always soup served for my grandfather and a list of the house calls he needed to make as a rural family doctor. After he died in his early 70s, her adventurousness and fierce independence was reborn with frequent trips to Hawaii.
When I bought and move onto my sailboat as a new doctor in Comox, she hopped aboard for gale-warning winds at age 92 - thinking little of jumping over the lifelines that most 50-somethings would struggle with. She proudly trekked up from Langley to Port Hardy to stay in my new home this past fall, so proud of what we had built with the North Island Community Health Centre. But by early December, there were signs something was off.
Cancer sometimes does not negotiate.
Like many people in her 90s, she had already survived a few cancers. But when it was everywhere, we all were forced to confront the mortality of our dear granny, who like the late Queen of England that she shared a birth year with, nearly reached a century.
Of course with a terminal diagnosis - that’s where the real work of dying - managing the family dynamics and potential regrets. Less than anyone I have ever met, my granny has repeatedly said she has no regrets. I believe her. What a gift.
Pain and suffering. Growing old is not for sissies, nor is dying. But good palliative care can be transformative - easing uncomfortable symptoms and helping give brilliant moments for love, forgiveness and redemption.
Having worked in End-of-Life care across Quebec, Manitoba and BC, training under and learning from mentors who wrote the textbooks on palliative care, this final act has become one of my favourite parts of being a doctor.
Frequently back here on the North Island I do house calls to help those suffering with terminal illness and facilitating that narrow space for patients and their families, that brief opportunity between stimulus and response, to choose their action and take back the power from the too-often cruel contempt of cancer.
It is a gorgeous moment, frequently repeated in those last weeks, days and hours. - the lessons for the living remind us to embrace the present moment and not sweat the small stuff. To love. To be loved.
For ideas/topics you would like explored, please email suggestions to: alexnatarosMD@gmail.com or find me online Facebook/Twitter “Alex Nataros MD” Note this is Not for personal medical questions – for these you should present to clinic/emerg or call 8-11.