The Palliative Path

A meditation on dignity and comfort in the last days of a parent’s life

At a certain age, for certain conditions, palliative care can be a better, less painful choice—not just for the patient but also their caregivers. Representative image shows a senior citizen's clasped together hands (photo: National Herald archives)
At a certain age, for certain conditions, palliative care can be a better, less painful choice—not just for the patient but also their caregivers. Representative image shows a senior citizen's clasped together hands (photo: National Herald archives)
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Abeer Hoque

In 2020, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, my 85-year-old father suffered a heart attack in Pittsburgh and was rushed to the hospital.

The stent, a minorly invasive procedure, was the easy part.

But the two days he spent in UMPC’s state-of-the-art ICU were a nightmare. The anesthesia made him groggy and aggressive. The sleep meds made him perversely restless and short of breath. The IV he constantly fiddled with, once even ripping it out, much to our horror.

Instead of restraining him, which I imagine to be a cruel and unusual punishment for an Alzheimer’s patient, the ICU staff let me stay with him overnight (a massive kindness made greater by the strict Covid protocols of that time). This way, I could keep him from wandering, from pulling out the IV, from being confused about where and why and what. Every two minutes—I timed it, and it was comically on the clock—I explained and comforted and explained again. By midnight, I thought I would go mad with worry and exhaustion. By 3 a.m., I was seeing stars, my father and I afloat in an endless hallucinatory universe of the now. By 6 a.m., we were both catatonic.

After he came home, my father was in a bad state. Physically he was fine, if a bit unsteady, but emotionally, he was depressed, anxious, raging, unresponsive. His appetite was out of control and he raided the fridge at all hours. He barely slept, wandering the house like a ghost of himself. It took almost three months for him to return to his ‘normal’—another immense gift from the universe, as medical crises often spell inexorable decline for the elderly.

A year later, the doctors discovered a giant (painless) aneurysm in his stomach, which could rupture and kill him “at any moment”.

Operating would mean a five-inch incision, at least five days in the ICU and up to a year to recover fully (if at all). For someone with dementia, major surgery also seemed a cruel and unusual punishment. From New York to Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, my siblings, my mother and I met over video chat to discuss at length. We made the difficult decision to let the aneurysm be, to keep my father comfortable and at home.

Initially, my mother felt tortured. Were we giving up on my father? Was she abdicating her responsibility?

These are questions that modern medicine is not always fully equipped to answer.

Doctors (especially surgeons) are often focused on finding and fixing the physical problem. But Alzheimer’s is a uniquely mental condition and it forced us to consider my father’s health and well-being on more than just the physical front. We wanted to prioritise his dignity, his comfort, his pain-free state: namely, his overall quality of life.

Days later, the doctors told us that the aneurysm was actually inoperable because of its position in his body. Moreover, there were two rogue blood clots that, if disturbed, could travel to the brain and kill him instantly. Our decision had been the right one, not just mentally but also medically.

Our family made another big decision at this time: we would not take my father to the hospital anymore—instead we would start palliative care.


I have been recommending Atul Gawande’s brilliant book Being Mortal to everyone since I read it five years ago. It lays out the case for palliative medicine (a.k.a. hospice care) in compelling detail. Instead of trying to prolong life, palliative care prioritises a patient’s physical and mental well-being and focuses on pain management. Not only does this kind of care drastically reduce the chances of family members developing major depressive disorder, but the patient outcomes are astonishing:

Those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives—and they lived 25% longer. If end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would approve it.
Atul Gawande, in his book 'Being Mortal'

In February 2023, my parents moved to Dhaka after 54 years abroad (in Libya, Nigeria and the States), abandoning the isolating, exorbitant, often neglectful care networks of America for the familial support and affordable at-home caregiving of Bangladesh. We were privileged to have this option, to have extended family so loving and helpful, to have enough money to pay rent and hire multiple caregivers.

For my mother, who had been my father’s full-time caregiver for over a decade, it was a new lease on life, letting her visit childhood friends, walk in Ramna Park every morning, get a full night’s sleep. We were additionally lucky that over 10 months, we did not have to see a doctor because my father’s occasional tummy upsets and falls did not result in serious illness or injury.

In December 2023, my mother left for the US for five weeks to visit my sister and her three children and to hold her newest month-old grandchild (my brother’s first child) in her arms. It would be the first time in more than a decade that she would leave my father for more than a few days, and she agreed to this vacation only because I had taken an extended break from my life in New York to be in Dhaka while she was away.

Three days after she landed in Pennsylvania, my father suffered his first medical crisis in over a year: a distended belly and extreme stomach pain.

I immediately called my cousins who live down the street. Two of them brought over their mother’s doctor, a young generalist who worked in the ICU of the hospital around the corner from us in Bonosri. Seeing my father’s taut and grossly swollen stomach, the doctor advised urgent hospitalisation. Thus started a gruelling, repetitive, exhausting conversation about palliative care, all while my father cried out in pain from the bedroom.

Despite several palliative and hospice centres in Dhaka, the concept seems unknown to many Bangladeshis, perhaps even heartless.

Neither of my cousins could sleep that night after hearing my father’s cries. I explained why we had decided against hospitalisation, against X-rays, ultrasounds and blood tests, against antibiotics and IV-administered fluids. I predicted that the hospital would likely have to restrain or sedate him or both. I said that even if we eased his physical state, mentally he would be traumatised.

This resistance to palliative care is not uniquely Bangladeshi. Families across the world are torn apart because family members have different ideas on how to best take care of a loved one. Too often, no one has asked the patient their preferences about resuscitation, intubation, mechanical ventilation, antibiotics and intravenous feeding. Too often, it’s too late to ask by the time these medical interventions come into play.

The doctor finally offered pain and gastric medicine via intravenous injections. One bruised wrist later, my father was more comfortable. Over the next 24 hours, he had two more injections, but by the third one, the pain meds were no longer working.

At 2 a.m. on a cool Dhaka winter night, we levelled up, the doctor generously taking time off his night shift to come to our house with a nurse and administer an opioid that eased the pain for another day and half.

By Christmas, or Boro Din as they call it in Bangladesh, I had defended palliative care more than half a dozen times to my relatives, each one aghast at how my father could suffer so, without my helping, i.e., hospitalising him.

This then was my struggle: to remember I was not there to fix anything, but to ensure that he remain in familiar surroundings, in his sunny airy bedroom. That he not be in pain.


This too was my struggle: to get my extended family on board with palliative care.

The cousin who came to live with us in America when he was in high school and who idolised my parents. The cousin who asked me to bring my father’s nice shirts and blazers from Pittsburgh so he could wear them. Their sweet wives, my bhabis, and their lively loving children who visited my father almost every day. To hold back my kneejerk reactions: 

Are they questioning my family’s judgement? Is this the patriarchy at work? Do they understand that it is no easier for me to see my father in pain?

My challenge was to set my defensiveness aside and try to infuse their love and concern with knowledge and perspective, so they could help me help my father spend his remaining days in comparative ease, rather than more aggressive medical treatment.

My last struggle was the hardest of all: The one that questioned the kind of life my father had been living these last few years.

Nine years after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he could not do a single thing that used to bring him pleasure: dressing nicely each morning, making himself breakfast while exclaiming over the newspaper headlines, reading history books and novels, writing fiction in Bangla, teaching geology in English, wandering the Ekushay February book fair, visiting his ancestral home in Barahipur, playing cards and watching action films, making his grandchildren collapse into giggles, walking on the deck at sunset with Amma, holding court with the Bangladeshi community in Pittsburgh, speaking to his two beloved remaining siblings, my Mujib-chacha and Hasina-fupu, delighting my mother with his quick-witted jokes.

If he could make no new memories and the only joys he had were fleeting—the chocolate chip cookies from Shumi’s Hotcakes, my mother’s smiling face, his caregivers’ tender ministrations—were these enough?

Was there some Zen-level lesson here on living in the moment?

And when these brief moments were interleaved with longer troubling periods of confusion, distress, rage and sadness... What then?

What about the endless hours spent restless and awake, his eyes lost and searching?

My father and I had had a fraught relationship my whole life.

Patriarchal and emotionally distant, he threw me out on several occasions, literally and figuratively. I didn’t speak to him for years at a time, and even reconciled, our exchanges were limited to politics, education and writing. He seemed uninterested in anyone’s emotional life, unable to engage in conflict without judgement and anger. His gifts of intellectual brilliance, iron-clad willpower and moon-shot ambitions did not make him an easy father—or easy husband, for that matter.

But now, none of that mattered. The only thing that did was my attempt to attend to him with kindness.

Linking his dementia-fueled rage to his life-long habitual rage would make the already difficult task of caregiving impossible. I had read enough studies that showed that caregivers died earlier because of their stress. It wasn’t hard to see the toll it had taken on my mother over the years. She had been hospitalised for rapid heartbeat issues twice last year and, despite a lifetime of healthy living, had developed high blood pressure to boot.

In his sleep-deprived, pain-addled state, my father didn’t always respond or recognise those around him. But one night, in a moment of lucidity, he reached for my hand and asked urgently, “Are you doing ok?”

“Yes Abbu,” I assured him, “I’m doing fine.”

And then he said—faint, incomplete, clear—“Take… your Amma.”

I said, “Of course I will.”

He was telling me what I’d always known, that despite everything, he had always looked out for my health and self-sufficiency, and more importantly, that looking after my mother was our shared act of service.

If this winter of struggle and sorrow gave my mother more time in the world, then I was ready for it. Would that the path were palliative for us all. 

___

Abeer Hoque is a Nigerian-born Bangladeshi-American writer and photographer. Her father, Professor Mominul Hoque, died on 28 December 2023.

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