Monthly Archives: November 2015

Existential Pain and History

mte5ndg0mdu0otg3mjq1mdcx“I am a dead man!” Alexander recognized immediately that his condition was mortal.

At first, the patient suffered such exquisite pain that Dr. Hosack did not strip off his bloody garments…When [the patient] complained of acute back discomfort, [the doctor] and other attendants took off his clothes, darkened the room, and began to administer [medicines] to dull the ache.

[The patient] was preoccupied with spiritual matters…No sooner was he brought to the Bayard house than he made it a matter of urgent concern to receive last rites from the…Church.

When [the pastor] entered the chamber, he took [the patient]’s hand, and the two men exchanged a ‘melancholy salutation’… He explained that…”It is a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord’s Supper privately to any person under any circumstances.” [The patient’s] friends thought it heartless to refuse a dying man’s last wish.

As befits a great orator, Alexander roused himself for one last burst of persuasion.

At that point, [the pastor] relented and gave holy communion to Alexander, who then lay back serenely and declared that he was happy.

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One common felt pain for patients at the end of their lives is existential or spiritual pain. Though difficult to define, most of us practicing palliative medicine recognize it when we see it. The proper intervention for it is not additional opiates, but rather appropriate spiritual support.

It always impresses me, when reading history, just how often our common humanity binds us across time. The patient above is Alexander Hamilton, lying on his death bed following his infamous “Interview at Weehawken” with Vice-President Aaron Burr . This slightly edited account, taken from Ron Chernow’s masterful biography, Alexander Hamilton, is a dramatic rendering of a man in existential crisis at life’s end. Hamilton recognized instinctively, as he so often did, his need for spiritual input to his pain. Unfortunately, in today’s medical world, we too often fail to recognize this need, delivering the wrong intervention, in the form of another dose of dilaudid, to patients needing spiritual uplifting.

This is not the first time I’ve noticed this in reading through historical biography. U.S. Grant eloquently describes a palliative approach to end-of-life care, as he completes his famous Memoirs while dying from head-and-neck cancer. John Adams describes a receding of the fear of dying, to be replaced by a fear of dementia. Human life, and death, resonates across the ages.

As I prepare for another stint on our Supportive Care Unit, a typically draining two weeks full of existential pain, I find reflecting on our common humanity, and the special role physicians are privileged to play in it, helps sustain me through the experience.

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