The Paper Boat

Patricia Cantley works as a consultant physician in the Midlothian Hospital at Home Team, offering an alternative to hospital admission for frail and older patients. She also works in the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh and in the Community Hospital in Midlothian. She tweets under her married name of Elliott as @Trisha_the_doc

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the word Frailty and its importance within Medicine for Older People. We see a lot of frail people and as geriatricians they are our core business both inside and outside the hospital.

Healthcare professionals have debated over the last few years how to define Frailty, and even how we might begin to measure it. It is no longer adequate simply to shrug and say “we know it when we see it”.

From a patient or relative’s point of view however, the word Frailty seems to be at best somewhat vague and at worst, derogatory and demotivating. When we ask patients how they feel about the word, whether in large surveys or on a one to one basis, they do not like it.

One strategy that I have found useful over the years, especially when talking to relatives of the patients under my care, is to paint a picture that they can relate to by using a simple analogy. I’m sure others have used similar techniques – indeed I learnt this one from a consultant colleague many years ago.

So when I am talking to a family member about their older relative, I sometimes liken their clinical situation to a fragile yet beautiful paper boat sailing round a pond of their choice.

A while back I used this particular strategy for a very elderly man under our care who was going through a very complex and unstable time. At one point, there seemed to be a lull in the medical winds that were buffeting his fragile frame and I sat down with his daughter to chat things through. She was desperately seeking reassurance, but also wanting honest facts about what to expect over the months to come.

She smiled as I described my image of a beautiful paper boat, brightly painted and currently sailing proudly in the sunshine on the still pond, giving pleasure to all around. I explained that the difficulty was in not knowing what weather was ahead, and the problems forecasting accurately. If the weather were to remain fair with barely a trace of wind, then there was no reason to think that the boat would go down and indeed it might sail on for quite a while. If, on the other hand, the wind got up, or worse, if it started to rain, that frail wee boat would go over quite quickly with little we could do to save it.

As younger and healthier individuals, we react more like little tug boats of wood and steel… we would simply bob up and down until the storm had passed. Though a big enough hurricane could be too much for us too…

The chat developed a bit more as we translated some of this into more medical language and formulated a plan over what would and wouldn’t be reasonable things to try, should that wee boat capsize over in a high wind. We agreed that we’d want to try as much as we could, maybe including intravenous therapy but that at the end, a call to the family rather than futile attempts at CPR would be the right strategy. I noted it all down, and his daughter undertook to update the rest of the family.

As is the way in modern medicine, our paths diverged and he was discharged from our service. I didn’t keep in touch, though I knew his daughter had my mobile that she could call if she wished.

Many months later, a text came through…

“Dearest Trisha, I am sending this sad message to you to let you know that last night the paper boat went down in a storm. It was all very sudden at the end, but we were well prepared, and for that we thank you.”

I called the patient’s daughter later that afternoon and we chatted about what had happened. I don’t think we used the word frail at any point in her father’s journey, but she knew what we meant, and I think it did help. It was also lovely to be able to talk afterwards and listen to how the last chapter of the story had unfolded. It is rare as hospital doctors that we get to do this kind of post bereavement support and for me, it was well worth while being home a little late (again) that evening.

Every doctor I’ve met has tales of when things go well, and we all have our share too of when they haven’t. We must never be complacent, and a strategy that works with one family may not work with another.

We need to learn a lot of facts as doctors, but there is also an important place for the use of stories in medicine. We can learn and teach what has worked for us, and consider how others might adopt and adapt similar approaches.

I had another text, more recently, from a previous trainee. Also a happy story, they wanted to tell me of a scenario in another hospital in another city, where they explained to a family the fragility of another paper boat. Intense medically focused discussions had failed to convey the precarious nature of the situation, but the visual image of a brightly painted origami boat had been something of a breakthrough. I was touched by the kindness of the younger doctor that they thought to feed back to their former teacher in this way.

I’m still not sure what the best way to define Frailty is, but I’ve tried a few ways of describing it in the clinical situation. I’d love to hear tips from other people, in particular from patients and relatives, about what has worked best for them.

 

3 thoughts on “The Paper Boat

  1. Loved this depiction which clearly articulates to each of us that fragility in its self isn’t a threat and can hold beauty BUT the resilience within the beauty is low. As my mother now in late 80’s declines gradually I will appreciate her beauty. Thanks for this. Ann

  2. There are plenty of easily used definitions for frailty. I do not shy away from using the term Frail as it is readily understood by patients and family. I use Fried Criteria (do you feel weak? Have you slowed down? do you feel tired/exhausted? Have you lost weight?)
    Frailty is a legitimate medical term and I do not think we should use euphemisms because we fear it might upset the patient – in my experience the term provides clarity for the patients and families, not upset.

  3. A beautiful gentle depiction thank you. Having watched the fragility of both of my parents dying, as people and nurses who had given over 90 years of care to others. I can only say your analogy resonated with me. It took a river of tears for me to make a friend with this time and to gain the courage to observe this gentle and noble fragility to pass from this life. Like your boat passing quietly from the horizon and into the distance.

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