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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How Long Does Granny Have, Doctor?

by Liam Farrell

“How long does granny have, doctor?”

“Only a few days,” I said. I was young and beautiful and too green to know that the wise clinician always fudges the prognosis. Within minutes the message was winging its way across the globe.

A few nights later and there were relatives tucked in every corner, swinging on the rafters, hanging from the roof, dangling from the curtains. Not that granny was an angel. To paraphrase Jonathan Swift: true to her profit and her pride, she made them weep before she died. But as La Rochefoucauld observed, we are more often loved for our vices than our virtues, and the relatives had ridden in on the four winds, swum dangerous rivers, climbed huge mountains, endured biting insects and even Ryanair flights. They’d come from Boston, Singapore, Sydney, Vladivostok, all determined to be there at granny’s deathbed.

So I was disconcerted to find granny looking much better, quite perky even. Breaking bad news is all part of the job, but breaking good news was a novel challenge. I’d parked my car on a downhill slope, facing away from the cottage, to facilitate a quick getaway. If it proved a long pursuit, had I enough petrol, I wondered.

“I have good news,” I said, trying gamely to give it a positive spin, “Your granny’s not dying after all. She’s looking much better. Ain’t that great?”

There was an ominous silence, which, inexperienced as I was, I felt compelled to fill.

“Underneath it all, she has a great engine, heart like a lion, strong as a horse, and all,” I continued, starting to babble, hoping that this testament to the clan’s animal virility might soften the blow.

“We were told she was very ill,” accused Boston.

A rebellious muttering began. “It’s cost me a bloody fortune,” from the deserts of Sudan. “My return flight is next weekend,” from the gardens of Japan. “I’ve taken a week off work for this,” from Milan. “I knew there was bugger all wrong with her,” from Yucatan. The crowd shifted threateningly forward, as crowds do when someone has a rope, a nearby tree has a convenient low branch, and the gestalt has a lynching in mind.

“Don’t lose hope,” I said, “I’ve adopted the Liverpool Care Pathway.”

Dr Liam Farrell (@drlfarrell) has been a columnist for many years, for the BMJ and Lancet among others. He was a family doctor for 20 years in Crossmaglen, Ireland, and is a former tutor in palliative care. Follow his Facebook page.

Related Links

Join in the conversation on the #HPM tweetchat this Wednesday, January 20th, 2015 at 9 pm EST, when we discuss the following questions:

Topic 1: Do cancer patients get more palliative care than elderly multi-disease patients? Why is that?

Topic 2: What do patients and families expect of prognosis, especially close to death?

Topic 3: How can we help patients and families prepare for death?

What: #hpm chat on Twitter
When: Wed 1/20/2016 - 9p ET/ 6p PT
Host: Dr Liam Farrell @drlfarrell

Please follow @hpmchat and check for more details. You can access the transcripts and analytics of #hpm chats through @Symplur.

Image credit: Time Clock via Wikipedia
Image credit: hpm chat 2016 01 20 by Pallimed
Image credit: More Care, Less Pathway: A Review of the Liverpool Care Pathway cover

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