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Management of the Terminally Ill Patient

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Management of the Terminally Ill Patient
  Management of the terminally ill patient Dr.Prabhakar Korada MBBS., FCGP., DNB (Psychiatry)., FIPSSURYA Brain & Mind Specialty Clinic,SECUNDERABAD – 500026   The present day doctors are well equipped to deal with diseases. They are trained to have control over lifeand disease. Their minds become so technically oriented that they seem to forget the reality of life.Unconsciously they often try to play ‘God’ and feel themselves omnipotent. And when faced with a dyingpatient, they lose nerve, because their science has not prepared them to accept death as part of life. Theyeither avoid him, dislike him, or are afraid of him, because the dying patient is perceived as a failure of the medical profession; the dying patient reminds them of their own fears of death. They are embarrassedwhen the dying patient or their relatives ask them genuine questions. The doctor’s ignorance is maskedwith irritability or bland emotional neutrality in the guise of professionalism. Nowhere in the medical course do professors prepare the students to deal with the terminally ill. All thatthey are taught is how to manage bedsores, and how to prolong life. Not much is said about how to offersolace to the patient and prepare him to accept death in a dignified way; nothing more for the bereavedfamily and their psychosomatic problems. Thanatology is the science of the study of psychology related to death, the dying patient, and thesurviving members of his/her family. Having the basic knowledge of this subject prepares the medicalpersonnel to be qualitatively more humane and enrich the lives of people who they come across in theirprofession. Interestingly, in the process, they themselves feel spiritually elevated and learn to look atdeath as an essential friend of all life forms. It prepares the doctor to be not just a ‘medicine giving machine’, but a complete being who is truly afriend, philosopher and guide to his patients and their families, in life and in death too.To be efficient in this area, a doctor needs to have a clear concept of death. According to modern sciencewhich depends mostly on direct observation of what can be seen, felt or heard, death is said to occurwhen there is brain death including the cessation of function of the brain stem. Beyond this, it is religionand philosophy which can give a more satisfactory explanation of life and its inevitable cessation. Orientalreligions have dealt in more detail about death and the transition of the soul, and the concept of thehereafter. What happens in the mind of the patient who is told that he or she has just a few months to live? Is itnecessary to tell him? Or is it better to tell a falsehood and escape as happens in many cases!What volcanoes erupt in the mind of a person who suddenly gets the news that his dear one is dead! Howcan he be helped to cope with the sudden loss!Well known psychiatrist and thanatologist Dr.Elizabeth Kubler Ross has proposed five stages of reactionsof patients who have been told of their impending death due to the terminal stage of their illness; such asadvanced cancer.Although no two persons react the same way, the following are generally found   They are:1) Shock & Denial,2) Anger,3) Bargaining,4) Depression and, finally,5) Acceptance. Similarly Bowlby had proposed the four stages of reactions of individuals who lost some one close to them They areAcute despair characterized by numbness and protest,Intense yearning and searching for the person who is deadDisorganization and despair leading to listlessness and apathyReorganization where the reality of death sinks in ---- the memories of the dead person become lesspainful, and the grieving person begins to return to normal life.   Awareness and exchange of ideas on the above psychological reactions would help health careprofessionals to offer the much needed solace to the terminally ill patient, as also to those families whorecently lost a loved one, without themselves getting caught up in the emotional lives of their patients. While grieving and mourning are themselves normal psychological processes that should be allowed toresolve over a period of time, physicians should be alert to the possibility of normal grief becomingabnormal and evolving into clinical depression which ought to be treated without delay. The risk of suicidein the survivors should always be born in mind. Interestingly, the psychological reactions that we discuss in Thanatology, seem also to apply to other lifesituations like separation and estrangement. When compared to estrangement, the death of a person isdecisive, and irreversible. Whatever pain it causes has a course and is perhaps easier to get over withbecause of the knowledge of its irreversibility. Social support and sympathy is always forthcoming. Butestrangement, separation and divorce could possibly be more painful emotionally; the reason being ----here, there is a certain amount of hope that things could be reversed; this kind of hope, albeit false mostof the times, makes the person to cling to his memories, and brood over them and continue to suffer.Apart from this, there is also the factor of social accountability in divorce and separation. Individualswould often have to answer odd enquiries. Lack of empathy from the rest of the society, is a further drainon the psyche of the estranged or the divorced. Thus the knowledge of Thanatology can be of help not only in the management of the terminally illpatients and their families, but also in cases of divorce and separation. An analogy can be drawn betweendeath of a being, and death of a relationship. Both are painful, perhaps the latter is even more so. Theprinciples of psychotherapy and family therapy in thanatology could be used in divorce and separation too.In normal grief following death of a close one, it takes around six months to get over the intense initialpain, after which there is apparently some amount of adjustment. But after a year, an anniversaryreaction takes place. The first death anniversary triggers memories when feelings again tend to becomeintense. The risk of physical health problems worsening during this period should be kept in mind, and theindividual forewarned. It takes from two years to five years to gradually get over the pain of death. Afterthis period the deceased person’s memories become pleasurable rather than painful, and the irreversibilityand the reality of death is accepted by the mind. It also takes similar amount of time for the wounds of divorce to heal. Grief can be subdivided into the following:Normal grief Pathological or abnormal grief Anticipatory grief Childhood grief Parental grief  Normal grief should also be differentiated from depression. For the inexperienced both may appearsimilar. But grief is normal and should not be interfered with, and depression is pathological and requiresearly intervention.Apart from depression, since the overwhelming majority of the terminally ill patients happen to be theelderly, geriatric problems such as dementia complicated with psychotic symptoms should be anticipated.In such cases it is best to take the help of an experienced psychiatrist. Dealing with active persecutoryhallucinations and delusions could be very demanding for non mental health professionals. Finally, a doctor who is comfortable in the face of his patients’ death, can make the patient feel morepositive and accept the inevitability of death with dignity and hope, and also help the rest of the familyfocus on the patient rather than on extraneous conflicts in the family that usually tend to surface duringsuch crises.  
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