Today I want to write about two deaths. One was good, the other less so; yet perhaps not as bad as it appeared at first sight.
This afternoon I visited a very elderly man in a nursing home. He had been deteriorating slowly for some time and at his request we had given up active treatment and were just keeping him comfortable. His wife was always present whenever I visited, cheerful and caring. She asked me to visit today because she thought he was chesty, although the nurses were not convinced. He looked very poorly with sunken eyes and dry tongue, panting with a fast respiratory rate, yet he was not distressed. There was reduced air entry and bronchial breathing at the base of his right lung. I could hardly hear what he said, but he clearly recognised me and approved of my suggestion that he needed to drink more. Both wife and son were present and I had a word with them outside his room. I told his wife that he had pneumonia and this might well be his last illness, but that it was known as the “old man's friend” because it is not a bad way to go and there is usually no suffering. She was expecting the news and had a little cry. I told her how much I admired the way she had looked after him, and as usual I could not quite keep the emotion out of my voice at that moment. She and her son looked satisfied with the consultation. Her husband died peacefully three hours later.
I wish that all my patients met their end in such a fashion, but another recent death was less comfortable. A woman of my age came to see me because she was upset after her partner had walked out. I had been her GP for over twenty years, during which time she had suffered a series of losses and setbacks. Most of these were related to men letting her down, either by dying or leaving her unsupported in some other way. I had forgotten until I reviewed her notes after her death just how much we had been through. Of course I hadn't actually done very much, just listened and occasionally prescribed something or referred her somewhere. You know, the usual GP stuff. But I imagine it may have been a relationship she valued because she almost never consulted anyone else in the practice. In retrospect, although I could not offer her much, at least I never left her.
So, as I said, she came to tell me that he had walked out. I don't necessarily blame him. Perhaps he couldn't cope with her emotional demands. The advantage of being a GP is that you only have to see your patients for short periods, and although I sympathised with her and liked her, I did sometimes find that she made me gloomy. Fortunately I don't have to form any judgement, and can simply look at things from her point of view. It had clearly got her down. The clever people who write guidelines say that we should assess depressed people with a validated questionnaire, and the Government insist that we do so on pain of losing income. Her score suggested she was mildly depressed with no suicidal tendencies. So much for the value of validated questionnaires. She told me that she was getting some counselling from the hospital clinic she attended, so I prescribed her a course of antidepressant and asked her to come and see me again two weeks later. On the second occasion she told me that she was a little better and the counselling was proving quite helpful. I said that I was pleased and asked her to see me again in two weeks. Three days later she hung herself.
I discussed her death with my partners as a “significant event”. I felt that I had let her down, first by not realising that she was suicidal, and secondly by not giving her enough hope. Even if you admit people to hospital they may still kill themselves, and ultimately the only way to prevent suicide is to give some hope that things will get better. It is well known that people often visit their GP just before they commit suicide, and the implication is that if only the GP were on the ball he would be able to prevent it. It seemed that I had failed my patient in our most important consultation. Why had she come to see me, if not for me to give hope and save her life? Such were the bad feelings I took to the meeting. There have been many changes in the practice recently and I now find myself surrounded by quite a few young partners. I am constantly surprised by how knowledgeable, helpful and supportive they are, and they did not let me down on this occasion. One pointed out that people who really want to kill themselves can be devious and hide their intentions, and told a helpful anecdote about a consultant psychiatrist who had been completely fooled in this way. But it was another young partner, generally reluctant to say very much, who came up with a profound and extremely comforting insight.
“I think” he said, “she just came to say goodbye”.