When I was a university student, our medical school dedicated just one week of our degree to teaching us about Palliative Care. We were to spend five days in the hospice to learn about caring for people at the end of life. When we arrived, we were surprised at our task for the week. Apart from some afternoon tutorials on medical matters, we were to spend our time with a patient getting to know their story. More specifically, we were not to study the story of their illness, but the story of their life. I was randomly allocated a man in his 60s and I honestly don’t even remember what he was dying from. But I remember his story. He’d lived a wayward life as an entertainer. He’d had and lost a family. He’d made mistakes and carried regrets. And he’d found Christ. He told me of his precious salvation. And though I was his only visitor in the last week of his life, he was at peace. He was ready to meet his Lord and Saviour. I sat and read the Bible to him each day that week and when I went back to check in on him the next Monday, he had gone to be with Jesus.
I fell in love with Palliative Care that week.
Through my very first taste that week, and subsequent, thankfully longer, periods I have spent working as a junior doctor in various Palliative Care units, I have come to hold a very special place in my heart for end of life care. To me, it is everything medicine should be. That may seem counterintuitive, but let’s face it, if medicine is all about saving lives, we fail 100% of the time. Palliative Care is about caring for people, not diseases. It holds a beautiful balance between not actively seeking more time on this earth yet treasuring every moment left on it. It is about quality of life. It affirms every person as inherently valuable and deserving of care, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. It recognises the spiritual health of each person and seeks to nurture it. It walks alongside people and their families through this fragile time, and then continues to care for those who are left behind to grieve.
Sometimes it’s hard.
A month into my first Palliative Care term I sat in the hospital cafeteria with tears falling down my face as I admitted to my boss that I was afraid of death. No matter how much we normalise and accept it, death always feels wrong. Death is painful, and so final. Death is the unavoidable, undeniable evidence of the brokenness of our world. I’ve cried as I imagine myself or my family in the faces of my patients. I’ve grieved for those who are left behind to watch time march on without the one they love. I’ve felt the weight of the knowledge of another soul having left this world without knowing Christ.
It has made me run to Jesus.
While medicine will never defeat death, Jesus has conquered the grave! Death should feel wrong, but no longer should it be feared. This is a glorious truth that I must renew in my mind each and every day. It is, quite simply, our only hope in this broken world. Though I know and trust this full sure, at times my faith can feel so weak. Death still feels so strong, so unpredictable, and it still hurts. That very first Palliative Care Consultant who sat with me as I admitted my fear gave me a magnificent book. It was one of C.S. Lewis’s lesser known titles, called A Grief Observed. In the pages of this small and unassuming book, Lewis, such an admired Christian author, lays bare his raw anguish and distressed struggle with God following the death of his beloved wife. It is painful and comforting in equal parts (and well worth the read!). I have learned that it’s ok to feel affected by death. Knowing Christ does not make us insensitive to the realities we still face. I’m learning my need to be ready. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but eternity with God is sure. Am I labouring for that which can be taken away in an instant, or for that which will never fade? And I learn afresh each day the need of my friends, family, and patients for the gospel. It is their only hope. So until that glorious day when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain”, I will continue to hold a special place in my heart for those facing the end of their time on this earth. Will you, too?