Three Seasons in Hell

The view from one of my husband's hospital room windows on a snowy March evening almost could have passed for a tropical sunset.

In upcoming weeks I will be speaking at several different hospitals about my husband’s and our family’s wildly varying experiences with hospitals and treating physicians during the course of his terminal illness.

I have been told no one remembers hearing from a patient’s family at hospital rounds.  This does not surprise me.  Who, after all, would want to continue revisiting and answering questions about such dark days?  I do it in honor of my husband, a physician who dedicated his professional life to trying to  deliver better health care to everyone.

While I am a great believer in telling people what they have done well, I think in this realm there is little room for improvement if one hears only the good stories.

It remains within my wheelhouse to recount the good and the bad in excruciating detail.  As for my own style of delivery, which could not be more different than my husband’s gentle diplomacy; let’s just say my father-in-law never laughed so hard as he did when I once described myself as a wallflower.     

I imagine that rarer still than hearing from a dying patient’s family about the details of his experience in the health care system is something I read this morning, which requires a gifted writer indeed: a patient’s own account of his prolonged, aggressive treatment for a rare cancer.  He is in a position to write and speak about things I cannot, including the pain he felt from frequently-used medical procedures, from his treatment, and from the complications of his cancer; and to explain what it is like to be the patient thus afflicted.

Christopher Hitchins also wrote harrowingly of the physical sensations of his own experimental proton beam therapy for a cancer that proved terminal.

Such a writing style is something only the patient himself could offer: my husband could be nonplussed, even witty, in response to a medical development that would bring me to my knees.  During his final seasons he frequently offered his own wry laugh lines–and even a practical joke just two days before he died–when he knew with mathematical precision how numbered his days were.

Writing about anything else, my style is that of a different person.  But I only can think and write and speak about my husband’s ordeal through the one-note prism of bottomless sorrow.

On both technical and substantive grounds I am limited in what I can offer: I couldn’t even begin to describe my own labor pain, but for knowing that it paled next to my husband’s pain as his symptoms took hold.

Mark Dery’s “A Season in Hell” quotes Elaine Scarry“physical pain—unlike any other state of consciousness—has no referential content. It is not of or for anything. It is precisely because it takes no object that it, more than any other phenomenon, resists objectification in language.”

There are many things I cannot describe and cannot convey.  But I hope I can offer something: someone should know about the compassionate care my husband received, including the seemingly small acts which truly mattered and will be remembered–like the hospice nurse who came to our home to “declare” my husband, as the euphemism goes, and who spoke gently to him as she did so, addressing him as “Dr. Glennon” when there obviously was no need for her to speak to him at all.   And after she was done she looked across the room at me, as I sat stunned and dissolved, and said my name and held her clasped hands to her heart.  She knew she didn’t need to say anything else.

And people in a position to do something about it should know about the harsh, unfeeling way other health care professionals dealt with my husband.  I’m the only one who can speak about that now, and try to ensure no other patient and family is treated that way again.

(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon

About Stephanie

In her spare time, Stephanie works full-time, and then some, as an attorney. She has published articles and delivered talks in arcane fields like evidentiary issues, jury instructions, expert witnesses, and forensic evidence. She also is an adjunct professor at a law school on the banks of the Charles and loves that dirty water, as she will always think of Boston as her home. You are welcome to take a look at her Facebook author page, or follow @SMartinGlennon on Twitter. All content on this blog, unless otherwise attributed, is (c) 2012-2016 by Stephanie M. Glennon and should not be reproduced (in any form other than re-blogging in accordance with Wordpress protocol and the numerous other wee buttons at the bottom of each post) without the express permission of the domain holder.
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12 Responses to Three Seasons in Hell

  1. bearwoman says:

    Thank you for doing this for all patients and their families. I can only imagine the toll it takes to do so, but you are doing a great service for all in honor of your husband. Thank you….

    • Stephanie says:

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting; that is very helpful for me to hear. I have found that it takes a toll to speak and to write about these things, but that it takes a far greater toll on me not to do so.

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  10. bluebrightly says:

    I am a huge fan of Hospice and that nurse’s actions just confirm my feelings. Thank you for that story. My mother insisted on spending her last weeks (pancreatic CA) at home, but refused Hospice and we were left with having to do everything. It was tough, but certainly she was lucky to be able to stay home, TPN and all, to the end. When the funeral people came to take her away, it felt wrong to me, and they were kind enough to let us keep her in the house for another few hours. I think there was a sense that she wasn’t fully gone yet – obviously it could be that WE weren’t ready to let go, but the point is that the men were civilized and sensitive enough to allow that flexibility. THey rose to the moment. I’m sorry you had bad experiences with other people but humanity is big, it encompasses much. I applaud your “style of delivery” as well as your willingness to speak. I don’t think it’s a one note prism – give yourself credit – there is more than sorrow propelling your words.

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