Views & Reviews Personal View

The kindness of strangers

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 08 October 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1993
  1. Eileen Palmer, medical director, West Cumbria Hospice at Home, Workington
  1. Eileen.Palmer{at}

    My father died 30 years ago, at the age of 56. His GP had prescribed him dosulepin for a number of months, muttering something about “male menopause.” After a chest x ray showed something looking like a mountain snowstorm, he was belatedly admitted to a hospital many miles and many hours away from his home in the Cumbrian mountains. The snowstorm was disseminated adenocarcinoma from an unknown primary. It had also drifted into his liver.

    I was in the first weeks of a first preregistration house officer post on the professorial surgical unit at a well known teaching hospital. The doctor who bleeped me was possibly a year further on in his career. “What do you think he’ll want us to do?” he asked me after telling me the biopsy results. “Do you think we should tell him?”

    As a third year medical student I had been inspired by the simple humanity and kindness of the professor of surgery I was now working for. The world literature on what would 10 years later become the specialty of palliative medicine was on the bookshelf in my bedroom in the doctors’ residence. I had a handful of paperback books by early pioneers such as John Hinton and Richard Lamerton, alongside papers on early symptom control by Cecily Saunders and Mary Baines from St Christopher’s Hospice in London. I had no …

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