OK, so this one’s personal. I lost my mum earlier this year.
She was 91, which is a good age to reach, and she was wholly independent up to the day she died – in no small part because of a deeply held fear of doctors and the very word “hospital”.
She raised me on her own and I am an only child so inevitably we were very close. Hers was not a bad death (it was quick, it was without pain and it was at home) and although it was recorded as “unexpected”, I had been looking after her up to a few hours before she died and so, for me, it was not a complete surprise. As such we were able to have a good conversation before she sent me home for a few hours to “see to your girls and come back tomorrow or the day after”.
I was unspeakably sad and, in truth, I still am. Christmas was her favourite time of year and I don’t like the fact that I will have to buy my own Chocolate Orange for the first time in 50 years.
However in the process of rearranging the internal furniture in the way one does when grieving, I wanted to make note of something and this seemed an appropriate place to do it.
My mum collapsed at home. The paramedics came and worked on her for far longer than they should. Apparently they got a faint pulse after 40 minutes. I spoke to them – they were kind, thoughtful, articulate and professional. I asked them to stop now. They said they were not allowed to stop; protocol demanded they continue. The man in charge said it if was his mum he would feel the same. But sometimes rules trump clinical expertise.
I choose to believe my mum did not know what was happening at that time.
A protocol around “notifying the next of kin” (me) was then put into place. It resulted in two very nervous and fresh-faced police officers arriving at my house nine hours later – at 3.25 in the morning – to inform me of my mother’s death. Bless them. Lovely boys. Hadn’t had any “breaking bad news” training. Anyway, I was told I had to phone the coroner.
The following Monday I was told that, due to cuts, the coroner had a backlog of 25 unexpected deaths. “Sorry,” they said, “this may take a while”. It did.
It took two and half weeks before he could get to my mum’s case. In part this was because there were too many other dead people and in part it was because of “some administrative errors by our office”.
“So what is your point Mark?” you may ask. Well my point is as simple as it is probably pointless. Throughout the whole process people were kind. Everyone (with one irrelevant exception) with whom I spoke was decent, engaged and sympathetic. And everyone had to find a way of being those things despite the processes, protocols, economics and rules that formed the backdrop to their work.
We seem to me to have designed a set of systems that exist to “protect” us from human error – and yet those very systems and protocols are often counterintuitive and deskilling.
I tend to choose naivety over cynicism but I can’t help but think the strongly ingrained habit to design protocols for all circumstances can be self-defeating. Protocols can serve to diminish and hide the human qualities that we are so anxious to see valued and enacted. Maybe I am overly protective of those qualities – generosity, kindness and a thoughtful attention to others. But that’s because my mum taught me these are the things that make people rich and the things we should always treat with the most respect.
Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer, and author of Stranger than Kindness. Follow him on twitter @markacradcliffe