I was on-call that New Year’s Eve. As I remember it, even though it was the holiday season and no patient wants to be in the hospital, it was still very busy for us.
It was a time of a bad flu season and our ICU was full. In fact there was even a pandemic that year of a bad strain of influenza A, the H1N1, or otherwise known as “swine flu,” and we had confirmed cases in our hospital. The hog farmers here in Iowa detest the name “swine flu,” as it was detrimental to their trade.
Despite of my toxic duty, I was able to finish my rounds and saw all our hospital patients for the day (took me 12 hours or so), and made it just in time to a gathering of some Filipino friends for the New Year’s party.
I was only warming up with our friends when I was called for a “stat” consult that I have to see right away. Before I left, my friends told me that if I finish the consult and it was still before midnight, then I should come back to the party. It was around 10 o’clock when I drove back to the hospital.
The patient that I came back for was a woman in her 40’s. She had breast cancer and sad to say, despite all the surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy that she underwent, the cancer had spread to the lungs and pleura (covering of the lungs).
The patient was obviously struggling to breathe when I examined her. The chest x-ray that was done that night, which was requested by the oncologist showed hydropneumothorax. That means there was collection of fluid and air in the space surrounding the lungs. And that was the reason I was consulted, to surgically place an additional chest tube (as she already had one in place) to drain the fluid and air.
After reviewing the chest film and comparing it to the previous chest x-rays, I determined that the finding of hydropneumothorax was old. In fact the chest x-ray was unchanged compared to films from few weeks ago.
That meant that the worsening of the patient’s respiratory status was not from the collection of air and fluid primarily. Placing another chest tube would not matter as the lung was trapped and would not expand further. I surmised that her further deterioration was from the advancing cancer itself.
Maybe the patient and her family was hoping against hope that there was still something that can be done. Maybe they were grasping for straws for a possibility that she could see another New Year.
I explained my findings and I then solemnly, but respectfully told them that in my viewpoint, placing another chest tube would not matter, and that would not relieve her breathing difficulty.
Right after hearing my opinion, that was when the patient and her husband made the somber decision that it was time. Time to end it all. Time to let go. Time to transition to comfort measures only. It was time for her to rest.
The patient’s husband went out briefly, maybe to talk with other family members who were outside the room. When he came back, I bid them goodbye and left.
As I went out of the room I saw two girls, both were probably not older than 12 years of age. They were crying, while an older woman was comforting them. I assumed those young girls were the patient’s daughters. I think it would be safe to say that they were not having a “happy” new year’s eve.
I looked at my watch. It was less than an hour to midnight.
By that time the rest of the world was partying while waiting for some fancy ball to drop. At that time most people were celebrating while waiting to welcome the New Year. While another family was also waiting. Waiting for suffering to end. Waiting not to welcome, but to say their final goodbyes.
I did not go back to the party. I went straight home to reflect, while the song Auld Lang Syne (translated as Times Gone By) echoed in my head.
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet heart now grown so cold,
that loving breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
On auld lang syne.
(*Auld Lang Syne is traditionally sang to celebrate New Year at the stroke of midnight, but it is also sang in graduations and funerals.)
(**photo taken by my wife in our backyard)