A doctors story of love, loss and consolation
Published: September 2020
Birth, along with death, are experiences known by each and every one of us as two critical events in an individual’s life, yet it it often remains an unspoken truth for along long as time allows. ‘Dear Life’ explores human mortality from the unique perspective of an ex-journalist, turned palliative care doctor, whom unravels the delicate truths of working within a hospice, which she comically refers to as the “death star” despite the reality that not all her patients die in her care.
On one hand this title is an autobiographical recount of Clarke’s own experiences growing up, recounting her own near death experiences whilst highlighting the parallels between journalism and medicine – perhaps most important the art of storytelling for patient care. On another, Clarke chooses to tell the stories of her patients as the focus of her own; the reader is made aware of the outcome from the start as Clarke explores how her own perspective on the gift and downfalls of modern medicine have been altered throughout her career, with reference to her father’s cancer diagnosis and her own abnormal smear test.
Beyond the heat-wrenching tales of loss and failure to reduce suffering, the author eloquently touches on key considerations surrounding patient choice and dignity and educates the readers of the “paradoxical demands of our doctors” to both feel empathy and suppress human connectivity.” One of the most simple, yet profound messages, of this book is Clarke’s reminder to listen to the patient first explaining that “a patient describing to their doctor their own illness narrative – is, then, the bedrock of good medical practise”. Clarke demystifies all the assumptions that come with a terminal diagnosis and highlights the importance of pain management – a courtesy that many take, too often, for granted.
Without shying away from the reality of death, Clarke chooses to highlight the power of nature in healing and acceptance whilst simultaneously discussing the myths surrounding end-of-life-care, only validating the universal emotion of fear surrounding the topic of death. Arguably, the most poignant action we learn from Clarke is the respect she shows when “meet(ing) each new patient assuming everything and expecting nothing” and just how much of ineffectively palliative medicine is conveyed digitised medicine, on TV shows and disregarded within our society.
As a practising doctor here in the UK, Clarke coherently and openly addresses issues in public policy and medical ethics asking the reader to consider their own demise, not as something to be feared, but rather an event that can be planned for and that should be discussed amongst loved ones. Despite all her years of working with both acutely and terminally ill patients, Clarke is the first to admit that she too,“used to recoil at this industrial approach to the logistics of dying… (and was on the ‘look-out’ for) death in disguise”. However, in essence, Clarke’s words provide a practical perspective encouraging her readers to acknowledge the impact of short moments and realise that immortality remains not to be a human trait but that death is neither final.
This is my no means an easy book to read and Clarke has a wonderful gift for asking readers to challenge the misconceptions around end-of-life care. However, the author does so with a humanity-centred tone – highlighting the fact that love really is the only thing that matters in life. As the blurb eloquently states “it is a love letter – to a father, to a profession, to life itself’.
Rating: 10 / 10
PS. Yes – I cried.