Dr Ranjana Srivastava is dying to talk
Dr Ranjana Srivastava is a medical oncologist, educator, writer, and columnist. Her first book, Tell Me The Truth: Conversations with my Patients about Life and Death was shortlisted for a major literary award. Her second book, Dying for a Chat: The Communication Breakdown Between Doctors and Patients, won the Human Rights Literature Prize. Her most recent book, So it’s Cancer: Now What? is about navigating a diagnosis of cancer.
Below, Dr Srivastava answers questions from the Dying to Talk Discussion Starter. For support in starting the discussion with your loved ones, download it from www.dyingtotalk.org.au
If you had a condition that you could not recover from, what would be important to you, towards the end of your life?
The quality, rather than duration, of my remaining life would be of paramount importance. For me, this means being able to cherish my children and family. I would like to be able to read books and have people visit me. I love fresh air and I’d like to think that I could walk outdoors, or be in a position to be taken outside.
Are there any pets that you would like to see or be with you, if this is possible?
I lost my one and only pet as a child and have never had another one but looking through the eyes of my patients, I think that if I had a pet, it would bring me great peace to have it at my side. I am always touched to note how beloved pets are to people.
Would you prefer a quiet environment or do you prefer activity and chatter around you?
A little bit of both, preferably according to the kind of day I was having. All too often, my patients tell me that one of the hardest things about being sick is that your life is driven by other people. I have tried to allow other people autonomy and respect at the end of their life and I’d like to receive the same. This means letting me decide as much as possible when I want to rest and when I want visitors.
Would you like music to be playing and if so, what style or what music?
Gentle music is nice but I’d opt for a talking book narrated in a nice tone!
If possible would it be important to you to have time outside?
Yes, yes, yes! One of the things I celebrate every day is the ability to go outdoors for a run or walk. When I am not with a friend, I reflect on my work and often ‘write’ my columns and books in my head. If I were too ill to go out by myself, I would love for someone to take me out but not necessarily feel the need to occupy me with talk. In other words, someone who is comfortable with silence.
Would you prefer to be surrounded by lots of family and friends, or would you prefer one or two closest people to be with you?
I think that would depend on how ill I was. If I was able, I’d like to be surrounded by all the people who have meant something to me, but maybe not all together as that can be exhausting!
If I was very ill, maybe just the family. But practically speaking, I hope I have learnt from my patients that sometimes even close family and children should be forgiven for not being at the bedside because they find the situation unbearable. In that case, I would like to possess the tranquillity required to say it’s been a blessed life and I have been lucky to have good friends and family.
Are there any cultural or religious practices you would like to observe?
I think religion can provide an anchor and I would not hesitate to avail of whatever religious services were available at the time. I also find pastoral carers most valuable.
Is there anyone particular you would like to see or talk to?
The people who have walked through life with me. And those who may no longer be alive, except in my imagination.
Is there anything else you can think of that you would like?
The strength to bear my condition with dignity and leave behind contented carers.
What is on your bucket list of things you would like to do or achieve before you die?
One thing I have learnt from my patients is keep doing these things everyday rather than save things for another time!
How did you feel during the process of completing this form? Was there anything about the process that interested or surprised you?
It made me think again of how precious life really is and clichéd as it sounds, to make each day count. This week alone, I have seen patients aged 25 to 90, diagnosed with a terminal illness. They have been astounded by the bad news but taken the view that they have to deal with what they have. It’s poignant to remember that these questions would have been mere hypotheticals for them last week. Life changes quickly and we must be grateful for each day.
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