“Hello, Good Morning Mrs. Williams, I’m Doctor Barnsley, how are you today?”
“Not too bad,”
Mrs. Williams is an elderly lady, small, with a cloud of wispy, snow-white hair framing her delicate face, and possessed of a very sweet smile and gentle demeanour. She leans back into her pillow and awaits Doctor Barnsley’s further utterances.
“I’m glad to hear that,”
he says and sits down on the edge of her hospital bed. He is a big chap, robustly healthy, the rugger type, as so many doctors seem to be. He is in shirt-sleeves, his stethoscope casually draped round his neck. He takes her wrist in his large hand, his thumb on her pulse.
“I’ve come to talk to you about the test results. You remember the ultrasound and x-rays you had, Mrs. Williams?”
Barnsley is calm and professional. Mrs. Williams nods, she is poorly physically, but compos mentis.
“Do you remember I told you that we found that lump in your chest? It’s bigger than we hoped it would be.”
Barnsley gives Mrs. Williams time to grasp what he says. She continues to look up at him trustingly, her sweet smile still in place. Again she nods, but doesn’t say anything.
“There’s nothing we can do about the lump; it’s too big and quite inoperable. We believe that the usual treatments wouldn’t be much use to you; they’d be harsh and it is unlikely that you would gain anything.”
Barnsley’s voice is measured, slow, utterly dispassionate, yet not unsympathetic. He offers no personal emotion, but he repeats his sentence in slightly different words, to make sure that Mrs. Williams understands. Her smile grows serious but doesn’t disappear altogether. Mrs. Williams knows how to behave. Then she coughs, pressing her handkerchief to her lips. The cough is long drawn out; she finds it hard to get her breath.
“But that doesn’t mean that we can do nothing at all,”
Barnsley continues, his voice remaining even and relaxed.
“We can make you comfortable, free from pain.”
This is another sentence he repeats several times, using different words.
“We can make sure that there is no pain and you will be comfortable at all times. You will have to have more care at home, of course. Who looks after you? How much help do you have?”
Mrs. Williams has children and there’s a husband.
“You will have to have professional help too; we can arrange for that through Social Services.”
Mrs. Williams receives her death sentence as calmly as Doctor Barnsley pronounces it. I am no longer certain that she has fully understood that her days are not only numbered, as all of ours are, but that her numbers will run out in the near future and that there will be a period of suffering and pain to go through, no matter how helpful modern medicine is. Her smile fades. Her eyes become vacant, no longer focussing on the speaker.
Doctor Barnsley rises to leave, gently putting Mrs. Williams’ hand on the coverlet, patting it, absently. “I’ll get the nurses to ring for your family.”
Mrs. Williams speaks for the first time.
“Thank you,” she says.
Later in the day, husband and son arrive. Doctor Barnsley also appears. He speaks quietly to the two men. All I can hear him say, repeatedly, is:
”She knows, she understands.”
Mrs. Williams herself is silent, a barely perceptible presence. Neither husband nor son address her directly. Doctor Barnsley excuses himself and the men stay at the foot of the bed; now and then a word punctures the invisible fog of helplessness surrounding them.
“Come on, Dad, let’s go and have a coffee,”
the son finally says. Dad agrees.
“Back in a bit, Mum,”
he says, as they turn to leave.
Not much later Mrs. Williams softly snores. She has fallen asleep.