Some people will question why I have written this post now, is it too soon, too raw? I find writing about my Dad therapeutic; I think we all need to talk about the things that make us sad and angry more often. My Dad, John, died from Sepsis (related to pneumonia) nearly a year ago, he was cared for by the wonderful staff on the Critical Care Unit at York Hospital. That week we; me, my Mum and my three sisters, spent by his side on that unit was the hardest of my life.
Having a close family member very unwell is hard enough, but imagine knowing the prognosis before he’s even moved wards. Consider what it would be like understanding each beep of a machine or the implications of each drip or drug given. Being a doctor and a daughter in combination was tough that week. I knew long before the ICU consultant and registrar came to talk to us that my dad was dying. I generally acted as interpreter between the medical staff and my family, it was really hard.
I have suffered with short lived, situational anxiety in the past, before an exam or before a big presentation but during that week we lived everyday not knowing what the next would bring. I had permanent butterflies in my stomach and felt physically ill while waiting for news. We would sit with my dad in his side room for most of the day, taking breaks for a cuppa and some air. Luckily my husband and mother in law could deal with my children so I could 100% be with my dad and family. Every time my phone rang, I’d be convinced it would be the hospital ringing to give me the worst news.
The ward staff were just brilliant and that is the one huge positive from this awful experience. We felt so cared for, we were listened to and spoken to like real people. Nurses and care assistants made us tea and toast every morning, they got to know us, asked about what kind of guy my dad was. We were able to ask questions any time we wanted and whatever ridiculous hour. When the time came for the Registrar to talk to us about withdrawal of active supportive care, I recall the conversation was done with such compassion and care using simple, gentle terms. We weren’t rushed.
I had over a month off work in all, two weeks while my dad was in hospital, a further three weeks waiting for the funeral and trying to get back to functioning normally. My first day back was difficult but made so much easier by the lovely staff I work with. The two staff I saw first that day, a fellow GP and a receptionist, both gave me a hug. That’s all, and that’s all I needed. Actually I lie, I got a cup of tea too and that was very welcome. I had a phased return which meant I could see how I coped with patient contact that week and then back to my normal schedule after a couple of weeks.
So we are a year down the line and what have I learnt?
Grief is hard. Personally for me it comes in huge waves. Some days I forget. I’m so busy with my family or working life that I forget that my dad has died. That leads to days of feeling guilty. Then there are days I just feel plain sad and it overwhelms me. My dad and I were buddies, really close. I generally spent one of my days off in the week with him and the kids, sometimes just a trip to the supermarket together, other days a trip out in Yorkshire somewhere. I miss those days. Some days it hits me all of a sudden that my children won’t have ‘Pops’ in their life anymore and I get a tear in my eye.
I often think whether I could have pre-empted my dad’s sepsis. He wasn’t himself for one or two days before he got very unwell. As a doctor, should I have realised how sick he was? The what-ifs sometimes spin around my head non-stop. This is where running has saved my sanity, it allows me to empty my brain of unhelpful thoughts and just think about my surroundings or the song buzzing in my ear.
I find it strange that people tend to go quiet when I talk about my dad. They shy away from the topic. I will happily talk about him and his hospital stay but it can make other people visibly uncomfortable. I am really keen for us to all to talk more. Talk about my dad, talk about the process of dying and grief in general. My dad was 77 years old but I had no idea about what kind of funeral he would want or if he had thoughts on artificial ventilation or CPR. Going through this process has definitely made me bring up these conversations with my patients at an earlier stage where appropriate, if they are frail, elderly or have a lot of health problems. I do know that my dad was unaware he was dying, he was at peace and he died quickly and painlessly.
I have become much more reflective since my dad died. I try to think more about what I am grateful for and my sisters are the biggest thing. Going through the experience of watching your father dying with tubes, lines and machines around him is a horrible situation but I can’t imagine I would ever have coped without being able to share the load with my three big sisters looking after me and distracting me. I vividly remember going to the cinema with them all on the fourth night of my Dad’s admission to see John Wick 2, we laughed, we cried and we ate a lot of popcorn. The time out from the hospital was so welcome.
Going through the process, it has also made me reassess what I prioritise in life. I have become more active, doing more exercise, and spend more time with friends and family. Career wise it helped me see what parts of the job I enjoy and where I want to be heading in the coming years. I want to make my dad proud, I think every day me and my sisters will strive to be the best we can be because we know he is around somewhere keeping a close eye. People say I talk a lot but no one talked more than my Dad, although my five year old daughter is trying to claim that title. My daughter loved him so I will often talk about Pops and she smiles and happily tells me all about her days out with him. My daughter has been so brave this year, they say children are resilient and she certainly is. She loves spending weekends with my Mum, or ‘G’ as she calls her, they distract each other with crafts, Disney movies and toasted teacakes.
Death makes us sad but unfortunately comes to us all. Enjoy life, treasure it. Finally, talk, to friends, to family, to colleagues. Keep the conversation going.
(Fantastic wedding photos courtesy of the talented Cris Matthews)
If you need any support with bereavement I would recommend Cruse Bereavement Care and NHS Choices websites. To find out more information on Sepsis then head to the NHS page and Sepsis UK do great work trying to increase awareness of the condition among health professionals and the general population alike.
I will be running the Great North Run (currently cannot imagine running 13.1 miles, but hey I have to challenge myself right?!) in aid on the York Hospital Charity Intensive Care Fund in honour of my dad, John, to hopefully help other family’s have the same positive experience we did on Critical Care. Any tips grateful received for surviving a half marathon…