Trying to keep my father alive

My father seemed to be dying last week. Despite my begging him to live - promising we would go for walks and sit in my garden - he lay on his hospital bed, alternating between rasping and silence.

For two years he has had dementia - not Alzheimer's, the usual sort, but multi-infarct dementia, caused by various arteries in his brain clogging up. In many ways the distinction is unimportant. Both cause loss of recent memory, wandering and an increasing inability to feed, dress and look after oneself.

The multi-infarct sort can have a more fluctuating course. Some days my father could discuss the situation in Kosovo, on others he was unable discuss the weather.

Two weeks before he lay "knocked off" (virtually unrousable) on his hospital bed, he had walked around a funfair with his grandchildren, enjoying a lunch and a drink. Was he happy on that day, did he have a good quality of life when he saw his grandchildren? I believe so.

When a family member is ill, being a doctor is an advantage and is best announced to whoever is treating your relative as soon as possible.

Occasionally people will suggest it must be a burden - knowing what a diagnosis means and what can go wrong. But how much worse it must be not to know how hospitals work or how to get doctors to talk to you, and then understand them.

As a doctor I have always erred on the side of pessimism, on the cowardly grounds that you can't be disappointed by doing so. Nothing can be as devastating as being surprised by tragedy. So when I see my father, lying flushed, unable to speak to me, with a temperature so high it makes him shake, I do not think he will survive the next 48 hours.

He is septicemic from a bladder infection. The blood poisoning will make his blood pressure plummet, his kidneys will fail and then his heart will stop pumping. Even if he lives for a little bit he will be too weak to eat and too frail to live.

My family and I indicate that we would like him to be actively treated although it feels almost selfish to do so. Right now his quality of life is poor. In an ethics tutorial we would not be pulling out the stops for this patient. The junior doctor on call starts saying it would not be right to resuscitate him if his heart stops. Knowing that resuscitation rarely works, except for generally fit people, I am happy to agree.

On the drive home I cry those big, ugly gulping tears which are impossible to control.

The next day he is much the same although his temperature is up and his blood pressure a little down. He is next to the nurses' station, which qualifies him as the ward's sickest patient - nevertheless their radio is loudly playing some talentless local station. Not music you would want to die to.

Knowing that doctors are often "too busy" to talk to relatives I sit by his bedside throughout the ward round so that his consultant cannot avoid me. I discuss my worries about his blood pressure; his consultant says they will check that his antibiotics are sufficiently strong. Anxious to convey the image of my father's life as being worth living I trot out the story of the funfare trip and his joy in his grandchildren. The consultant looks surprised and I worry that I am trying too hard to keep my father alive just because I can't bear him to die.

My father gets a dose of another antibiotic and I find it hard to keep my temper when another junior doctor calls him "lad". I, who have called my father much worse, am overwhelmed by his rudeness. My father fought in the second world war, I nearly say - "sir" would be more suitable. As I go home I kiss his forehead and whisper, "I love you, please try to get better." And quite clearly he asks, "What do I have to do?"

The next day I bring his grandchildren in to see him. Some friends have counselled against this on the grounds it will upset and give them nightmares. I explain how Grandpa is and ask if they would like to visit. I warn them that he is thin and may not know them. Impressively the children go right up to him, hold his hand and kiss him more fearlessly than I did. My eight-year-old shows enormous compassion, cajoling him to eat a banana, open his eyes and talk to her. She chatters away, getting over the fact that at times he is silent. Over the course of the day my father improves unrecognisably - his face lighting up when he sees my eight-month baby.

The next day he is sitting out of bed, lucid, amazing the nurses as well as us. He even eats a good lunch. When I get home, a doctor friend who phones to ask me how my father is, says, "Ah, the wonder of modern antibiotics." I place substantial store by his grandchildren igniting his will to live.

My father, being a journalist and devoted Guardian reader, would, I believe, be quite happy for me to use him as column fodder. And this is also a little test for him. As we left I said that since I had to go back to work and we lived two hours' drive away, we couldn't see him tomorrow. "Don't think we've abandoned you," I said.

"I need a habit to pass the time," he replied, "I'll take up reading."

Thanks to who have provided this article. View the original here.


comments powered by Disqus