Pain management is always fraught. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jill thought she knew best for her father so she kept the morphine coming

Whatever her motivations – and whether she had even been aware of them – she had been hastening his demise.

The call came on Sunday evening, flagged as urgent on the computer. I rang the home number, which was answered by a woman.

“My father is dying of prostate cancer with bony mets,” she explained. “He’s in a lot of pain.”

The medical terminology struck me. “Are you in health care?”

“I’m a nurse. I don’t mean to tell you your job, but I think it’s time for a syringe driver.”

As death approaches, medication taken by mouth can become unreliable. In order to control symptoms, drugs are administered subcutaneously by a device known as a syringe driver. The siting of a driver often heralds the final hours of life. As well as relieving pain and mental distress, the potent drugs used can depress consciousness and respiration, which more often than not hastens the end. This is not euthanasia: it is permissible as the price of effective palliation, the “doctrine of double effect”.

When I arrived at the house, Frank was alone with his daughter, Jill, a neatly dressed woman in her forties who had travelled down from her Northumberland home to nurse him in his final illness. She described how, no matter how much morphine she gave, she didn’t seem able to control his pain. Frank was indeed in a bad way – semi-conscious, markedly confused and rambling – but he didn’t appear objectively to be suffering. There was one brief moment when he did wince. Jill responded instantaneously, spooning in a dose of liquid morphine as a parent might feed a baby.

“How much has he been having?” I asked.

Jill shrugged. “I give him some every time he’s in pain.”

When working out of hours, one has no access to patients’ records – all information has to be gained first-hand. I asked to see the rest of Frank’s medication. In the depths of a laden carrier bag I found plenty of paracetamol and diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory.

“Is he having these?” I asked.

“Oh, no, he’s just on morphine now,” she replied.

Bone pain doesn’t generally respond to morphine alone. One usually prescribes anti-inflammatories and paracetamol; these potentiate the effect of morphine, allowing far less opiate to be used.

I wrote out a schedule, specifying regular doses of the two abandoned drugs, and insisting that Jill note down every dose of morphine given.

It had all taken a long time. Leaving, I bumped into two other women coming in at the gate. They turned out to be Frank’s elderly wife with another daughter. I’d had no idea there was a spouse around. She seemed equally bewildered to meet me, saying that her daughter had taken her out for an evening drive. It was midwinter, and dark outside.

The overdosing on morphine was one thing; quite another was the removal of Frank’s wife before calling the doctor in. Safeguarding children is a familiar concept, but in recent years there’s been a growing realisation that adults are sometimes in need of protection, too. I contacted Frank’s GP first thing in the morning and he convened an urgent safeguarding conference. A troubling picture emerged. Frank’s four children had a lifelong history of rivalry, division and competition for paternal attention. Jill and her sister were allies against the other two, and against their mother. The wider family reported that Jill had descended on the home, taking control of Frank’s treatment and shutting the others out, pulling rank by virtue of her spell in nursing some 15 years earlier.

The conference prohibited Jill from further direct involvement in her father’s care. Treatment optimised, Frank came off virtually all morphine. His confusion resolved completely, and he had another five months of good-quality life. Whatever her motivations – and whether she had even been aware of them – Jill had been hastening his demise. How easy it would have been for an out-of-hours doctor unwittingly to have colluded, taking things at face value and acceding to Jill’s suggestion that the time for a syringe driver was nigh.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

Getty
Show Hide image

Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.