Dr Alastair McAlpine asked some of young patients what gave them joy and meaning – their answers surprised him
By Alastair McAlpine
As a pediatric palliative care physician, I spend my days working with children who have life-threatening or life-limiting illnesses and their families.
Although many people think of us as the harbingers of death, in reality, doctors like us aim to maximize quality of life, especially when that life is likely to be shortened. We recognize that these children are so much more than just their illness and that they are part of a family. We focus not just on their medical needs but also on their psychosocial and spiritual ones as well.
Last year, as part of my diploma in pediatric palliative care, I was tasked with evaluating the attitudes of my little patients towards life. I asked some of them what gave them joy and meaning. Their answers were surprising and positive.
In fact, they made me completely re-evaluate my relationships with friends and family. I now spend more time with the people I love and I tell them how I feel about them. I have tried to make kindness a priority in my life.
I decided to share some of the children’s responses on Twitter, to provide some perspective to the fractiousness that is so prevalent there. The response was overwhelming, to say the least (my thread has been retweeted nearly 100,000 times).
The kids were not hung up on “stuff”. What mattered were the things that we all intrinsically know are important, but often forget in the hustle and bustle of daily living. The biggest takeaway for me is that the happiest, most meaningful moments were simple ones that did not require vast sums of money or effort to attain, but instead embraced the importance of human connection. It was also surprising how frequently the so-called small things were the ones that turned out to have enormous significance at the end.
Here are the top six lessons that my little patients taught me about life:
1. Spending time with family and pets is incredibly important.
Whether talking, laughing, playing, or just sharing silence, time spent with loved ones and pets was priceless. Towards the end, the only regret many of the kids had was that they didn’t get to spend more time “with mum and dad and my big brother”.
2. Humor and laughter are vital.
Even though they were squarely facing death, these kids derived amusement from the same things that normal children do: silly antics; clumsy adults; slapstick humor. Laughing is so important for many reasons but key among them is that it reduces pain.
Finding levity in the face of overwhelming tragedy can be difficult, and some of the parents dug into unimaginably deep wells of courage to provide mirth when their hearts were breaking. One dad pulled funny faces through his tears. But it always paid off. And whether ill or healthy, children will always be delighted by farting.
3. Good stories told and read by a loved one offer inspiration.
The written word and vivid fantasies told with basic toys enabled children to create alternate realities away from the often sterile hospital environment. They were sources of inspiration to continue fighting, even when the “battle” seemed lost. After all, if Harry Potter could continue to face Voldemort, then they could defeat their own “monsters”.
Stories also allowed the children to construct a meaningful narrative to explain the often incomprehensible diseases they were so bravely facing. Many believe that our ability to create and share stories is what defines us as human beings, and these kids demonstrated that. Stories inspired, captivated and transported them.
4. Swimming in the sea, playing on the sand and eating ice cream (even on a cold day) are simple, memorable pleasures.
Children vividly remembered the simple pleasures that cost little except the effort of being truly present; the moments that may have seemed small at the time were often, upon reflection, priceless.
5. Children as young as four worried about what would happen to their parents.
Many of the kids had made peace with their fates but wanted to protect mum and dad from additional heartache. This role-reversal is surprisingly common and indicates that children are far more attuned to their bodies than we think they are. Death is the elephant in the room. Part of my job is to encourage honesty and to get everyone talking, even when it’s painful.
6. Simple acts of kindness were treasured and remembered until the very end.
Kindness, whether from the classmate who offered a sandwich or a nurse’s smile, was the virtue that made the biggest impact on the children. They loved kind people and remembered acts of kindness until the very end. The last words I heard from one little girl were: “Thank you for holding my hand when I was scared.”
None of these revelations are new or earth-shattering, but when they come from children who are bravely facing death, an extra level of profundity is added, which has prompted many (including myself) to re-evaluate just what is important with the very limited time we have. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the beach to eat an ice cream.
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