Our very own Consultant in Palliative Medicine, Dr Jenny Strawson recently exercised her other talents in The Eleventh Hour Book Club Competition featured in this year's Palliative Care Congress. Contestants submitted their essays based on the theme 'Hope' and among many powerful stories, Jenny's essay came runner-up! Read her entry below:

“When this is all over I’m going back to Ibiza.”
I nod, only half listening as I try to palpate for a bladder, an island of water amongst the body’s many tributaries and landings.

“The sea there, it’s, it’s…….”
I look up to find Ian, eyes closed, snoring. My company as exhilarating as ever. Later I’ll be sure to write ‘better anecdotes’ in my list of self improvements. With my yearly appraisal approaching, my self-worth is taking another dip. Perhaps my mother-in-law is right, it is too hard to be both.

Leaving the room I check my phone for no apparent reason, the new mammalian reflex no one saw coming, and there they are staring back at me, frozen in time.
Later the nurses report ‘no urine passed and he’s got a prostate’, so it’s off to the cupboard I go to make up a catheter trolley, before knocking gingerly on Ian’s door. He is sitting up in bed watching Countdown.

“Usurp!” he announces rather pleased with himself. Margaret joins me as a chaperone – she doesn’t think much of Countdown.

As I go about the business of catheterising, Ian starts to talk.
“This won’t stop me flying will it Doc?”
“You know, to Ibiza, I mentioned it earlier?”

Margaret in the corner has woken up, ears pricked to attention.
“I’ve got to get to Ibiza Doc, you see I’ve got a little place there and I promised my son we’d go this year and well, we haven’t exactly been on speaking terms lately, he’s never really forgiven me for, his Mother, you know, how it ended and so anyway, I have to get to Ibiza.”

Poised with a 12 French, I note a slight tremor in my usually steady hand. “Um, well, let me just get this in and we can talk about it later, ok?”. Ian slumps back against the pillow, deflated. He can sense my avoidance, letting out barely a sigh as I pass the catheter and watch satisfied as golden liquid fills the bag.

We exchange a few pleasantries as I tidy up under the watchful eye of Margaret, who escorts me out of the room, ushering me to the nursing office like an overly keen bodyguard. She’s certainly no Kevin Costner.

"Doctor, you have to tell him. We’ve all been talking and he has to know he’s never going to make it to Ibiza. He can barely walk to the bathroom. You have to tell him today. It’s the right thing to do.”
At 2pm exactly, after a cheese, ham and cucumber sandwich on wholegrain bread, I go back to talk with Ian. He is dozing. Clutched to his chest is a battered guidebook ‘The Ibiza home owner’s guide to everything’. A lump forms in my throat.

“Ian, are you awake?” I touch his forearm gently.
Ian stirs, opening his eyes slowly, somehow he looks even smaller than he did a few hours ago.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Oh, yes, you said you’d advise me about flying, so what do you reckon

From the desert of my mouth, I hear myself utter the words “Um well I’m afraid Ian, I don’t think you’re ever going to make it back to…”
“Don’t!” Ian’s face has become stony serious, his voice strong. “Don’t.” Turning his back to the wall he whispers,
“I know, you don’t need to say it”.
The next morning, Ian doesn’t wake for his breakfast. His breathing has become shallow and puddly. Margaret is leading the charge.
“His son doesn’t want to come, we’ve called him.”
“Does he know he’s dying?” I reply curtly finding it hard to hide my exasperation.

“Yes Doctor, I have done this once or twice before”.
I leave the office and make my way to Ian’s room. His breathing beckoning me like the tide. I pull up a chair clumsily and sit beside him and take his hand.
“Tell me about the colour of the sea Ian.”
Nothing, but space between us.
Forgive me.
“Your son’s on his way…” Call me a liar, I dare you.
“I imagine it’s turquoise and crystal clear and if you look down you can see hundreds of those tiny fish tickling your toes. It’s perfectly warm as you swim out where the sky and the sea meet like old friends. Young boys jump off the cliff, vibrating sinews of life, and there is your son waving and smiling before jumping in. And as you swim you are finally at…..”
“The water’s more a kind of azure, isn’t it Dad?”

Standing in the doorway, a heavily breathing miracle, Ian’s son, sweaty with the effort of his journey here. Without a word we exchange places, I replace his hand for mine. The moon pulls the tide in and out for a few long minutes before the silence.

The final, necessary punctuation, to every story.

Jenny Strawson
Consultant in Palliative Care

Read more news