By Katie Hodgkinson
When I started work as a doctor two years ago, I was living alone with one sad succulent and a pot of thorn-filled roses my boyfriend had given me.
I’d always liked plants, but I’d never been able to keep anything alive longer than a few weeks – in fact, my dad had been watering our fake one for years!
On my first rotation, I started on a combined cardiology and stroke ward, which, as you can imagine, sees quite a few patients with life-changing conditions. I’d made friends with one of the hospital palliative care sisters and she often came to help us with patients who were experiencing breathlessness, pain and agitation.
The first woman I met in a hospice, when told she’d have weeks to live, was insistent that the only thing she wanted to achieve in her remaining time was to ‘see the flowers bloom in spring’.
The staff bought her bulbs, and I’m told she lived long enough to see the first ones flower. It really struck me that after a lifetime in this world, the thing that mattered most to her was seeing the colours and life that comes with a new season – I’d never really thought of plants in that way before.
In my first few weeks, I started to develop relationships with some of our longer-term patients. There was one woman who I took blood from every morning and for whom I requested countless tests, scans and meetings.
Her family weren’t local, and we’d often share a giggle over the comings and goings of other women in her bay; I ended up being her most regular visitor.
One weekend I checked her blood results to see what we’d really been hoping not to see – she’d grown a nasty bacteria in her blood, and would need at least a further five weeks of antibiotics.
Sadly, we never managed to get on top of the infection. We gave her stronger drugs, blood transfusions and called her family in to be with her. She passed away peacefully, and that evening I went with the palliative care sister to a garden centre.
It was meant to just be an escape from long days on the ward and my first close patient death, but the centre had named all their plants – and when I saw one with her name on, it felt like some sort of sign. It was a bright and bold Calathea, with vibrant pink stripes that cheered me up instantly. I took it home with me.
Naturally in a busy city hospital, more of my patients died despite our best efforts. We brought in families, arranged a wedding for a terminally ill patient, and I even smuggled in someone’s new puppy inside my jacket (infection control approved, of course.)
I was 24 and seeing more death than most people see in a lifetime – but although it was horrible, it was also an honour to be a part of a team that could help these people have a good death.
No one wants to think of their life coming to an end, everyone wants to be comfortable and surrounded by the people they love, and it was so rewarding to be able to offer that.
Every time a patient passed away, I’d go to the garden centre and search either for a plant with their name or for a plant I thought represented them. I wanted to remember them.
I became better at looking after the plants in my flat. I developed a watering schedule, bought plant food, repotted them into pretty jars I’d found in shops, took them for showers if I thought they were dry – anything I could do to emulate the kind of care I was trying to give to my patients.
Most doctors have something they do to remember the people they’ve cared for – whether it’s lighting a candle, a quiet moment at the end of the day or debriefing with friends. I’ve heard of people planting trees – but I think individual plants might be one of the more unusual coping mechanisms!
When the pandemic hit, I was working in elective orthopaedics and my ward was the first to start accepting Covid-19 patients. Despite all the research, the treatment plans were often simple – oxygen, more oxygen, steroids and if needed, machines to take over breathing when patients became too tired.
We sent patients to ITU, and those who deteriorated we made comfortable. We took over the role of the families who weren’t allowed in, lest they put people in danger.
We held hands with patients while they passed away and we held up screens so their families could be there until the end. It was devastating knowing that pre-pandemic, we’d have had crowded side rooms filled with loved ones, and yet because of the risks they had me in full PPE, unable to even hold a hand without horrible sweaty gloves.
When I started my Covid-19 work I had about 15 plants and a watering can made out of an old sauce jar. Then garden centres closed in the first wave, but I ordered more plants online.
After eight months, I started to run out of room in my flat, and my friends suggested buying one plant per week rather than per patient. It didn’t feel right – not the level of acknowledgement I wanted for these people who had lived such full lives.
I started planting seeds, lighting, candles – anything I could to still feel like I was acknowledging the loss of so many people. I asked for help on Twitter, and people suggested planting trees, donating plants, getting an allotment – but none have felt quite right just yet.
Thankfully I live alone, so the ever-expanding wave of greenery wasn’t too annoying – but I have started letting my fiance choose where we put some of them! It’s lovely to be surrounded by so much new life and I get so excited whenever I see a leaf start to unfurl – I am reminded every time to appreciate it by the woman who wanted to see the flowers bloom in spring. I like to think she’d be just as thrilled.
Now I work in a different hospital, and thankfully fewer people are dying. I’ve been able to propagate my existing plants to grow smaller baby plants for my friends.
I still have a plant for every patient who passed away while I was their doctor; it looks like I live in a jungle, with more than 60 plants, but I’m starting to prune and take cuttings so that other people can share the joy.
For some of my paediatric patients, I’ve decorated pots with stickers of their favourite things – Peppa Pig, octopi, even one covered in fingerpaint.
The time I spend looking after my plants has become the time when I can reflect on everything that’s happened and all the people I’ve cared for.
Sometimes it’s a sad experience, and sometimes it’s a more joyful process where I can think of those that got to go home.
I think of all the things I have yet to learn, how far I’ve come, and how many more patients I will get to meet. I think I’ll always dedicate a plant to a lost patient; I just might need to move to somewhere with a garden.
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