Tuesday, November 27, 2012

last of the helmstone hyenas

After a brief pause we’re buzzed in to the lobby. An elderly man is standing by the nearest flat door; I assume it’s flat number one.
‘Hello,’ I say. ‘Who’ve we come to see, then?’
He frowns. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘That’s what I was wondering.’
For a second I think this must be an aspect of the job, but Rae sees how the numbers are running.
‘This is flat eight,’ she says.
The man takes a trembling step out further towards us.
‘Yes. Flat eight. But I saw your ambulance and I wondered what all the fuss was about. Who did you want?’
He thumbs us further down the hall.
‘Out the back. Let me know if you need anything,’ he shouts after us.
The corridor seems to extend forever without any logic to the numbers or leading anywhere in particular. We’re just about to radio for more information when a door to a hidden stairway at the far end cracks open and a friendly-looking woman in her seventies puffs out onto the landing.
‘This way,’ she wheezes. ‘I told your people we were round the back.’
‘Oh. I thought where we parked was the back.’
‘No, that’s the front. But it’s confusing,’ she adds, generously. ‘Follow me.’
She tells us what’s happened as she walks, marking out the dreadful progress of the whole thing in her padded slippers: Stan eventually got diagnosed with terminal cancer a couple of months ago. He doesn’t like doctors, he put it off too long. They haven’t been able to sort the care package out mostly because of Stan’s cussedness. But he’s much, much weaker now. The speed of it’s taken everyone by surprise. The last few weeks have been difficult; the last few days have been disastrous.
‘He won’t even talk to the doctor anymore,’ she says. ’I’m at my wit’s end. I just can’t manage.’
She shows us into the flat, a tiny but comfortable place with a wooden baby gate in the hallway.
‘For the dog. When we had it. Excuse the mess.’

Stan is lying in bed. The cancer has robbed everything from him but the shine in his eyes. Every ridge and scoop of his skeleton is readable through the skin; it’s a shock to see him breathe, like seeing signs of life in a mummy.
‘He won’t eat or drink. He hasn’t had anything the last few days. I spoke to the doctor again but he just pointed me back to the cancer trust. They’ve done their best but it’s reached the point now when I just don’t know who to call or what to do.’
She reaches out and rubs the back of his hand.
‘There’s a Do Not Resuscitate thingy for him. I know he’s dying, but the doctor said maybe three months. He won’t go into a hospice and I don’t know what to do. We haven’t got the room. It’s not like I can even be in the same bed with him anymore.’ She looks down at him with a numb statement of fact. ‘I just can’t.’
‘Do you have a care folder we could look at, Deidre?’
‘Care folder! I’ve got a phone number somewhere, but it’s not twenty-four hours. I thought maybe you’d have some ideas.’
But just as I start to review the options – including taking Stan to hospital, although in his condition that obviously wouldn’t be the best place – when Stan suddenly turns over in bed, grabbing the sheet with an emaciated hand and dragging it over his head as he goes. It’s an unexpected, peevish kind of movement, like someone bothered by all the fuss.
Rae goes round the other side to look at him.
‘Agonal,’ she says after a moment.
Deidre lays both her hands on her heart.
‘What does that mean?’ she says.
‘I’m afraid Stan’s dying,’ I tell her. ‘These are his last breaths.’

Deidre has to leave the room, but one of Stan’s niece’s had been visiting the family. She sits with her uncle and holds his hand as he dies.
‘Would you like some tea?’ says Deidre, bustling about in the kitchen. ‘Milk and sugar?’


There are quite a few family members in the area. We’re still finishing off the paperwork and organising the next step as they arrive. It’s a friendly bunch – there are gasps and tears, but it all soon settles down into a kind of scratch wake, tea and biscuits, old photos coming out. His brother hands me a framed black and white picture of a hockey team, lined up with their sticks.
‘Here’s Stan in the Fifties. That’s him, there. The Helmstone Hyenas. County champions. You should’ve seen them.’ He taps the glass, and then wipes it with the edge of his hand. ‘That’s why I’m not too sad about what’s happened tonight. That wasn’t Stan in there. He’d already gone. I saw him a couple of days ago and we had a good chat about things.’
I hand him back the photo.
‘The last of the Helmstone Hyenas,’ he says. ‘And if you look at that picture over there...’
He points to a wedding photo, Deidre and Stan arm in arm striding out of the church. I’d noticed it before a few minutes ago, but there’s something I missed, a foreground detail – an arch of raised hockey sticks for the young couple to walk through.


Alan said...

Thanks Spence for this one. Really touching.

I hope I never have to say the words "these are his last breaths" to anybody, ever.

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Alan. Not the easiest or nicest things to have to say. But at least in the ambulance you sometimes get to balance it with a birth.

Anonymous said...

I had to do this the other week, hold a patients hand as they died. I was glad we were there and could make her comfortable, tuck her in under a cosy blanket and be there for the family who were scared of the moment even though they knew it was coming. Something we don't often get the chance to do in the ambulance service.

Sabine said...

Moved me to tears - thanks for writing this.

jacksofbuxton said...

At least Stan had the opportunity to breathe his last at home.

I wouldn't have fancied playing hockey against a team known as the hyenas though.

Anonymous said...

Good post...

Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Anon - I think it's probably the most important part of ambulance work, the simple human contact & reassurance, and often the one that's most overlooked. It's great when you get the chance to exercise it, like you did the other day. Cheers for the comment.

Thanks Sabine. The whole thing was so unexpected (and so tidy, in a way). A lovely family, struggling to cope, and managing it with a fantastically understated warmth and dignity. It's a privilege to meet families like this - def one of the perks of the job (in a grim kind of way!)

Jacks - I wonder whether they had some kind of pre-match dance, like the All Blacks. With a manic laugh...

Cheers Anon!

Philip said...

That was beautiful Spence. Very sensitively written.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I wish your book was available outside of the uk, alas.

I don't believe it was peevish. Change what one can is a form of communication: perhaps frustrated in a situation when overwhelmed with the urgent and have no time much less energy for those who want to stand around nattering.

'That wasn't xxxx in there' - I have heard this so oft it shreds me. That was Stan. People don't 'go away' when ill or dying. They aren't 'gone' but not yet dead. It demeans Stan, the whole spectrum of his life, which includes his dying, right to the end. I was told the same about my grandfather, 'he's gone' - 'Is he breathing?' Well yes. "What is he doing?" Humming. "That's what he does when he is content. We may not know what he sees or thinks, but he is content, not dead." I have heard people say that line in one form or another at least 50 times - Yet none of them could imagine it being said about them.

Spence Kennedy said...

Hi Elizabeth

Well - I thought the book was pretty much avail everywhere! Are you looking on Amazon.com? If you still have trouble, let me know and I'll send you a copy.

I know what you mean about the 'that's not Stan..' thing. But his brother obviously loved him very much, and I suppose all he wanted was for me to see the man behind the disease.

Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth.

cogidubnus said...

Hi Spence

I must be a real dummy...Helmstone

After all these years I finally sussed where you are and of course it's the city (town as was) of my birth...god I'm thick...bless you mate...makes you even more special in my mind...

Don't worry...I won't give you away...but I was born in BG in EG...right place?

Spence Kennedy said...


It's a pleasure to write about your old home town, Cogi! I hope I do it justice (within the confines of keeping it secret, of course - shame I can't be more open). ;)