Life continually challenges us with the unexpected. And only a fool would attempt to prepare for the unforeseen. It does help though to go into uncharted territory with our eyes open to potential risks.
Interviewing terminally ill people for their life stories is satisfying, worthwhile, and often moving work. Though it does come with precautions. I’ve previously written about some of these in Interviews May Unlock Traumatic Stories. and 7 Essential Questions to Consider.
Now imagine yourself in the following situation.
You’re interviewing an 80-year-old woman, Rose, who lives with her daughter, Sandra. The daughter provides much of the caregiving. Rose suffers from a number of heart-related problems.
This is your third visit. The daughter tells you that she’ll be out doing errands while you spend the next hour interviewing her mother. Sandra assures you she’ll be back within the hour. It’s just you and Rose alone in the house.
About halfway through the interview Rose develops severe pains in her chest. She asks you to hurry and get her nitro pills in the kitchen. You find a tray with numerous medications but nothing labeled nitro.
Back in the living room you explain this to Rose. She suggests you call her daughter whose cell phone number is on a message board in the kitchen. But when you try to find the number, it’s nowhere to be found.
Rose is becoming increasingly agitated and calls out to bring the tray of medication to her in the living room. A number of questions race through your head.
- What if she picks the wrong medication with calamitous results?
- If something goes wrong, what should I do?
- I’ll have to leave soon for an urgent appointment and Sandra hasn’t returned home. Should I leave anyway?
What would you do?
As a general rule, it is vitally important that as a personal historian working with a terminally ill person, you don’t begin to undertake caregiving tasks. You weren’t hired for this and indeed may put yourself and your client at risk if you step into such a role.
Having said that, you could find yourself in a situation similar to the one described with Rose. And with no one available to help, you may have to step in.
There are a range of possible responses, none totally satisfactory. But here are some suggestions:
1. If Rose is registered with a local Hospice, there may be a number you can call for just such a crisis. Someone there would have a list of her medications and be able to help you. If she isn’t registered with Hospice, then go to step 2.
2. Assuming Rose is clear mentally, bring the tray and ask her to point to the nitro pills. Read out the name of the drug and ask if these are indeed the nitro pills. If she confirms they are, then allow her to select the bottle and take the prescribed dose. Don’t select the bottle for her.
3. Stay by Rose’s side and monitor her progress. If she shows signs of recovery, you can breathe easy. If her condition worsens, call 911.
4. Assuming all is well, you still have an urgent appointment to keep. Sandra, Rose’s daughter, hasn’t returned. And you feel uncomfortable leaving Rose on her own. Here’s what you might do:
- Ask Rose if there is a neighbor who could come over and stay until Sandra returns. If there is, contact the neighbor and have that person come over.
- If there’s no one who can come over, I’d opt to stay until Sandra returns. As urgent as your appointment may be, it is not worth risking someone’s safety. Call and re-schedule your appointment.
A final word.
One way to avoid the kind of predicament I’ve described is to make certain that you’re never alone with a person whose health is severely compromised. Don’t allow a family caregiver to use you as a means to get out of the house. Pleasantly and firmly point out that your arrangement with your client doesn’t involve caregiving responsibilities.
I’d appreciate your responses to this scenario. Please post your thoughts in the comment box below. I promise to respond to each one.
Photo by jan van schijndel
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