During my medical training, attendings reminded us again and again to treat patients with dignity: simple things, such as addressing them by title and last name, keeping them properly draped during physical examinations, sitting down at eye level when possible. The physical nature of the relationship between doctors and patients does not always bode well for that injunction: there is no dignity in the rectal exam, or in dropping an NG tube, or in any of the many invasive things we do to patients during the acts of healing. Nevertheless, there are certain things we can do that serve as reminders that our patients are adults, and that their bodies and minds deserve care with compassion and dignity.
So I had forgotten with my father.
“Dad, please eat the last few bites.” I feed him.
“Dad, you need to take a shower.” I undress him, I put him in the shower, I soap, I wipe, I dry, I redress him.
“Dad, time to brush your teeth.” I put toothpaste on toothbrush, fill the cup, watch him brush.
“Dad, wash your hands.” I give him soap, or hand sanitizer, and I watch to make sure he cleans his hands.
“Dad, please don’t use the stairs by yourself.” I sleep on a makeshift bed, a human barricade on the staircase landing so that he cannot go downstairs in the middle of the night.
All these things that I think my father need to do, but that he refuses to do on a regular basis. They are for his own good, right? Why would he refuse to take care of personal hygiene, or to eat, or to get out of bed, or to do any number of other things that any reasonable human being does, as he did do for most of his life, but has stopped doing since Mom died?
My father is his own person, with his own reasons, making his own choices. Who am I to try to force him on a course he doesn’t want to take? He wants to be with Mom, and as a thinking being, he is doing something about it. And it’s about time I remembered the lessons of compassion and dignity. No question it is a hard thing to watch my father dying, and to let him go on his own terms. I choose to believe that is his gift to us: that we are not his parents.
Conversation of the Month:
Me: “Could you make sure after guests leave Mom and Dad’s house that you clean the toilets? They were filthy after _____ stayed for 8 days back in May, and I had to clean them when I got here, 5 months after the fact. Not fun.”
Brother: “I did check the toilets, they were fine!”
Me: “Did you flip the seats up and look underneath?”
Brother (in bewilderment): “Why would I want to do that?”