A young mother came to see me for a severe pain in her wrist. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
She had injured her wrist while washing the soiled sheets from her mother’s bed. This was a daily chore for the young woman, which she undertook most willingly. Her mother has terminal cancer and wears a nappy.
The young woman gave up her job to care for her mother, whom she loves dearly. She never complained once about this, but she was upset that her pain limited her ability to look after her mother.
Her mother had been in hospital for a short period, so it gave the young woman some time to rest and allow her wrist to heal.
I was impressed by the young woman’s level of caring. When I expressed my admiration of her attitude, her reply was: “My mother was everything to me, doctor. She sacrificed so much to raise me, I feel it is my duty. I love her to bits.”
She was most grateful that her wrist was responding well to the previous week’s treatment because she wanted to be ready to care for her mother when she was discharged from hospital.
She became weepy when she mentioned that the hospital staff had told her that there was nothing they could do for her mother because all her organs were failing. It bothered her that her mother could not eat. She had stocked up on energy drinks and protein-high food in the hope that her mother would eat and get better.
I tried as best as I could to explain to the young woman that when the organs start to fail, the appetite disappears.
As the organs continue to fail, patients slowly drift into a coma. When that happens, giving food becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.
I realised that this information is a difficult pill to swallow, especially when someone is close to the dying person, as this young woman was to her mother.
I told the young woman that now that the doctors could do no more for her mother, she was the most important person in her mother’s life.
In the final stages of her mother’s life, food was secondary to the love she needs from her family. I told the young woman that her mother was eager to be home with her, just to hear her voice and feel her touch, because her mother must have been aware that she didn’t have long to live.
If her mother refused to eat, I urged the young woman to touch her; hold her hands and gently stroke her as she would do with a child because her mother was now an adult child.
I recall the words of a dear friend I visited at a hospital many years ago. She was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer and was on heavy doses of morphine. Her face lit up when she saw me and she forced a smile through all the agonising pain from the cancer that was slowly eating her away.
She cheerfully said: “I am so very glad to see all of you by my bedside, my family and you, my dear friend. I am old; I must go to my maker. But I am so glad that I have all of you around before I go, because it is so lonely to go alone.”
I have never forgotten her words.
My friend’s words made me realise how important human contact and loving touch are to the dying in their final moments of life.
To anyone who is stressing about a near and dear one in the terminal stage of their life, my message is: If you cannot keep them from going, let them go peacefully. Let them know that you are there by their side all the time. Play soft music and speak to them lovingly without expecting them to respond, because they can hear you even if they cannot respond.
Your caring presence is the greatest gift you can give to the dying, so give it generously and lovingly. We can fight for life but we cannot fight death.
Let our dying friends and family leave peacefully and with dignity, knowing that they are loved.
Dr Ellapen Rapiti is a family physician, specialising in child and mental health and addiction counselling