M. says, ‘ I feel there comes a time in everyone’s life when they should be able to make choices for themselves, and I believe in euthanasia. And that’s important.’ Her voice, is very weak and low, but she speaks with strong determination. Covered as she is with the thin hospital blanket I can only see her face and suddenly, as I am drawing her likeness at the end of her bed the face crumples and tears come. I move to turn off the recorder – I want to respect her privacy in her grief – but she pulls a bony hand from under the blanket and stops me. ‘No, I’m OK’ she whispers, ‘This is what I think.’
I am torn. I want no more than to treat this lady with the respect that she deserves so seeing that she wants to continue I leave the recorder running and return to my chair at the foot of the bed to resume the drawing. M. seems to gather her emotions around like fallen leaves and hold on tight as she explains them to me. It is the first chance she has had to voice her feelings. ‘So, I’m at the end of this treatment and what they expect us to do is either R. (her husband) or me to put the feeds up for me when I go home. But we can’t do it. I could do it for anybody else, but I can’t do it for myself. Because I don’t want to. Its as simple as that, I don’t want to.’ As she speaks, it really does seem simple. A hopelessly complex situation involving all sorts of emotional parameters that obscure the view is suddenly opened up to reveal a broad and almost cloudless horizon. The ward with the other patients, the staff, the hospital itself and the rest of the world through the window, darkened now as the day is drawing in, all seem to disappear, and M. and I with the recorder between us just sit, quietly, together in a place of clarity and understanding. M. breaks the silence and the world returns. I think there should be more care for the person. I’m not just some woman that’s a disease you know. Each individual is different – needs different things. I don’t want sympathy – I don’t need that. I respond only with a nod and a murmur. She wants no more than this and I want her to feel she can continue to express feelings and thoughts that it is clear she has been keeping back for a while. The anger and frustration that seem so close to the surface, and the pain etched on her face, bear witness to the efforts she has made to maintain a sense of dignity and autonomy in the ‘patient role’. Her interactions with the people caring for her and even with her husband have suffered for this effort, effort that has however not been understood from the outside. In the morning briefing it was remarked on ‘how horrible she’s being to her husband’, but this was not to see the very real, the deeply personal and unspoken communication with a man with whom M. has lived and loved deeply for over sixty years. Then M. says something that has stuck in my mind since. She says one of those things that I may not at the time want to acknowledge is so charged and pregnant with sad truth, but the words remain, all the same, pulling at, tugging at, and finally exposing my own reasons for doing what I do. She says, ‘I feel that they can help you to suffer…but they can’t help you to feel better as you are suffering’.