I believe in the fullness of an encounter. There are so many in palliative medicine. I believe that by paying careful attention, moments full of infinity happen. When I am not fully present, these moments pass me by … forever.
To Write of Martin B
Nineteen years. His age is important.
He had a teddy bear beside him in the hospital bed.
He was the centre of their attention. They could not attend to each other.
The father towers. The mother is small and quiet.
She left the home. He reared the two boys.
Martin wants to stay with his mother as his illness progresses. Maybe it is a practical decision. Maybe it is more.
On his last admission we were invited but not welcome.
Our presence was not benign – the sarcoma likewise.
It spread from the left thigh to his lungs.
That day he looked great – a Greek greatness.
Pale, pale with dark rimmed eyes as an actor would be made up to look sick.
But this was real. Or was it?
His recurrent nightmare was of his coffin, about to be opened for him to see himself. He would wake up before the lid was removed.
We were told this by the oncologist who fights death valiantly for her patients. In palliative medicine we do not resist death. We respond to its proximity and wait.
Martin told me he did not want to talk about the nightmare. He talks to his father and brother about it.
On Tuesday he greeted me with energy and enthusiasm. He looked at his mother seated beside him repeatedly asking ‘Are you alright? I will keep asking are you alright.’
For the first time he seemed orientated firmly and boldly towards another.
Somehow he was growing before my eyes. I thought: Here is a man coming into being. I sensed the hospital bed getting bigger and higher, as though rising before me. His mother and I seemed smaller – an Alice in Wonderland effect. I was curious and pleased.
That was the second to last day before my holidays.
I did not see Martin again.
– Dr Sinéad Donnelly, MD, FRCPI, FRACP, FAChPM
Sinéad Donnelly is from Ireland. She has worked as a doctor in Ireland, USA and Scotland. For the past seven years, she has been working in Aotearoa New Zealand. She is a specialist in palliative medicine and internal medicine working in Wellington. As an extension of qualitative research Sinéad has produced six documentaries in Irish and English, exploring how children grieve, ancient Irish traditions of dying, how families care for relatives dying at home in Ireland and New Zealand and, most recently, a documentary on a unique rural parish in New Zealand. Sinéad writes as a way of making sense of her world.