CHARLES GRAHAM - Next of kin’s choice

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MY Auntie Helen was one of the most sprightly nonagenarians you were ever likely to meet.

An eternal optimist who led the healthiest possible lifestyle for her age, she was one of those folk you would think was going to go on forever.

But no-one can legislate for everything in life, and after more than nine decades of virtually no ailments she was struck down with a rare form of cancer.

It is a measure of her fitness for her age that doctors were prepared to give chemotherapy a go. It started well but then a nasty fall leading to infections and a dilution of her treatment rapidly led to a decline.

At no time did she grumble and still talked positively of taking each day as it came. To onlookers we feared the worst but she only discovered there was nothing more doctors could do when a Macmillan nurse presented her with a document called A Pathway to Dying.

I went to see Helen in hospital just afterwards and she had suddenly aged 30 years. She said to me: “Talk about tactless and demoralising. It has just knocked everything out of me.”

It was the last time I saw her and she died four days later. Nature was taking its course, one has to accept, especially as doctors had decided to withdraw treatment. But Helen gave me every impression that she would much rather have been kept in blissful, optimistic ignorance to the end.

This is a tricky dilemma no doubt repeated on a daily basis all over the country. And the other day we saw the complete flipside of this scenario when the Royal Bolton Hospital apologised to the family of the late Trevor Roberts for discharging him without informing him, or indeed them, that he was terminally ill.

A visit to another hospital as his condition deteriorated did lead to his incurable condition’s being explained before he succcumbed to the cancer. But relatives have slammed the “appalling error” by RBH, saying Mr Roberts was entitled to be informed so that he could arrange his affairs.

For me this hospital’s biggest mistake though was in failing to tell the patient’s loved ones. As far as I am concerned they should be the arbiters of whether the patient would want to know or not. Doctors and nurses are brilliant at medicine but that doesn’t necessarily make them the best judges of their patients’ emotional and pastoral needs.

I am pretty sure if Helen’s next of kin had been asked first whether she would want to know that her time was short, we would have emphatically said “no.”

Mr Roberts’s relatives clearly would have wanted the opposite.

It would just be nice for loved ones to be given the choice either way.