Kayte McCann on dealing with the death of a close family member

Kayte McCannDealing with the death of a close family member, whether expected or otherwise, is perhaps one of the most harrowing things you can deal with.

Doug Kamerow dealt with the death of his mother after multiple stays in hospital and long term care facilities, and writes about it in the BMJ. She had Alzheimer’s disease and cardiac failure.  Falls in hospital had left her with a fractured pelvis, and later a comminuted femur fracture. He experienced hospital and long term care facility miscommunication over his mother’s diuretic dosing, leading to her readmission to hospital.

What makes this more difficult is that Douglas Kamerow is a doctor. An experienced doctor; but this was his mother.

As healthcare professionals (whether that be doctors, nurses, paramedics or students within any of those groups) we deal with death regularly. We certify death and prepare bodies for the mortuary. We carry out resuscitation and attempt to preserve life where it is appropriate to do so. Irrespective of profession, we can’t avoid it. We are taught to be emotionally detached from the death of our patients. To be attached would be to the detriment of our career and our own mental and emotional wellbeing.

But how is it different if the patient is a loved one? Is it possible to think rationally as a health care professional, knowing that death may have been inevitable, while still being an attached relative?

Is too much awareness a dangerous thing? Is it even harder when you see examples of poor or clichéd communication towards you after the death? Would statements such as ‘she slipped away peacefully’ cause anger or frustration if you had used such statements yourself?

From my own personal experience a close relative passed away when I was in the first year of medical school. I’d been doing my training to be a healthcare assistant and was being taught to prepare a body for the mortuary. Some weeks had passed since the death, but it distressed me a lot. I had to leave the room to regain composure. I knew it was irrational as the death was in a different part of the country, but there was nothing I could do to stop myself feeling helpless.

Clearly the two roles are contradictory; healer and relative. I know full well that, I would be unable to cope rationally if I was looking after a dying relative while working in the healthcare sector. I would want investigations and interventions that were not appropriate. This is why doctors cannot care for their relatives.

My heart goes out to anyone who has lost a relative, but even more so if they work in the healthcare field.

Kayte McCann is a fourth year medical student at the University of East Anglia.