When a dying patient went to a holistic healer, this GP picked up the pieces

Genevieve Yates

3/07/2019 1:41:35 PM

Dr Genevieve Yates found one final way to help when her lonely patient returned.

Lonely and isolated caravan
Alone and dying, the patient called his long-time GP.

The call came as I was sitting down to dinner.
My tuna casserole was never going to win any culinary prizes and there was no ‘plating up’ involved, but the food was hot and I was hungry. I put my fork down with a sigh.
‘Can you come and see me, Doctor? My breathing’s really bad.’
It was after 8.00 pm and I’d had a long and dispiriting day. You know the kind, filled with the worried well (‘I’m still feeling dizzy at times, perhaps it’s a brain tumour?’), and the unworried unwell (‘Strewth, Doc, it’s only a touch of sugar. Stoppin’ me tablets won’t kill me.’).
I wasn’t officially on call. Should I get someone else to deal with this? No, this one had my name on it.
I had first met 58-year-old Peter* 10 weeks earlier, and had seen him a dozen or so times since. Diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma the previous year, he had opted for the most aggressive treatment possible: surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Stubbornly determined to beat the disease, he’d sought other options when his specialists had run out of theirs.
His quest had led him to a ‘holistic healer’ who ran an ‘exclusive private health retreat’ on a tucked-away acreage property not far from the town in which I worked. Without qualifications of any kind, nor recognition from any professional body, the healer peddled hope – and it came with a hefty price tag.
The ‘scientifically proven, powerful, herbal remedies’ were ‘imported directly from the USA’ and did not come cheap. Clients’ bank accounts often became emptier than their colonic-irrigated bowels.
The potion used in Peter’s residential program was particularly pricey. He paid about $30,000 a month for his treatment, with the expectation that it would last between two and three months and give him a 95% chance of total cure. For this desperate man, such odds could not be ignored.
Peter liquidated all of his assets, including his house and car, paid the $20,000 up-front fee and moved into the ‘health retreat’.
Two weeks into his regimen, Peter ended up in my consulting room for the first time, brought in by the healer’s assistant. He was dehydrated and had significant electrolyte disturbances from the brutal starvation and purging regimen to which he had been subjected. After IV rehydration, Peter insisted on returning to the retreat for continued holistic treatment, against my strong advice.
A week later, I saw him for the drainage of a pleural effusion that was significantly interfering with his breathing. Peter flatly refused to go to hospital, so I performed the procedure under the supervision of my supervisor (as I was a registrar at the time).
The pleural tap needed repeating several times over the next few weeks, as Peter’s chest cavity continued to steadily fill with fluid. He looked worse each time he came in and was rapidly losing weight, yet he remained optimistic, fervently believing that his ill health was evidence that the treatment was working.
‘You get sicker before you get better because the herbs draw out all the toxins from your cells and they go into your blood,’ he explained. ‘Once they’re in the blood, you can flush them out of your body, but it takes time.
‘My healer says that my cellular toxin levels are now really low and that the cancer cells are almost functionally normally. It’ll only be a few more weeks and I’ll be better.’
Unfortunately for Peter, his toxins outlasted his ability to pay for their removal. When his monetary funds dried up, so did the healer’s hospitality. The dying man was ‘discharged’ from the retreat and left to fend for himself. Too sick to travel, he stayed in the local area and moved into a dilapidated caravan.
Peter was initially devastated and disbelieving, coming to see me three times in as many days to debrief.
‘He told me that if I’d had enough money for another month’s treatment I would be cured. I begged him to treat me and let me to pay him back later, but he refused. How can a healer, of all people, be so heartless?’
Peter’s shock soon gave way to anger, resentment and self-pity, which became all-consuming and indiscriminate. He wanted nothing to do with anyone even resembling a healthcare worker: hospital staff, doctors, palliative care nurses, alternative therapists and even meals-on-wheels volunteers.
When I’d tentatively knocked on his door a week earlier, he had yelled out, ‘Leave me the hell alone.’
I had slipped a note under his door with my mobile phone number and a message, encouraging him to call me whenever he needed help.
The phone call came that Wednesday evening and the consumption of my tuna casserole was postponed.
Peter was in a bad way. His abdomen was grossly distended by ascites, making his matchstick limbs appear even more insubstantial. Lying in urine, faeces and vomitus, the stench was almost overpowering.
He was clearly in great discomfort and I felt out of my depth. I urged him to allow me call an ambulance, but he vehemently refused. Rifling through my doctor’s bag, I offered an assortment of medicinal substances, including analgesics, diuretics and tranquilisers, but he turned them all down. Even my attempts to remove his expelled body fluids and change his clothes and bedding were met with resistance.
‘I can’t help you if you won’t let me,’ I exclaimed, frustrated. ‘Why did you call me?’
‘I … don’t want … to die … alone. Please … stay.’
Each word required tremendous effort, leaving him breathless and exhausted. His pleural effusions had constricted his fragile lungs, reducing them to a fraction of their original volume.
‘Is there someone I can call for you?’ I asked.
‘No … yes … my son. Tell him … I’m … sorry.’
Peter had previously told me of the falling out he’d had with his only child, David*, over his decision to seek expensive alternative therapies. Believing David was only concerned about the spending of his inheritance, Peter had cut off contact. Too proud to ‘go crawling back penniless and have him tell me “I told you so”,’ the rift had not been repaired.
This was my chance to do something meaningful, and I grabbed it gratefully. I needed it as much, if not more, than Peter did.
I found his address book and called his son, hoping for a heart-warming reconciliation. But this was real life, not a made-for-TV movie. The phone rang out; no one was home. I spent the next hour ringing around trying to locate David, to no avail.
Frustrated, I sat holding Peter’s hand as he drifted in and out of consciousness. I knew what I had to do.
‘David says he’s sorry too, and that he loves you very much,’ I said.
Peter’s face relaxed, a hint of a smile evident on his lips. He squeezed my hand.
‘Thank … you … for… caring.’
I stayed with him until he died later that evening. No one should have to die alone and unloved.
I could not give him the hope of a cure, at any price, and he’d refused my offer of help to ease his physical suffering, but what I was able to give Peter was priceless.
I was able to restore a dying man’s faith in humanity, at least a little.
* This is a true story, but some details have been removed or altered to de-identify the people involved and protect their privacy. A version of this column first appeared on Dr Genevieve Yates’ website.

Note: The headline of this column originally included the term ‘faith heather’, which is not correct in the context of the story.

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Chris D Hogan   3/07/2019 9:55:55 PM

I've danced that waltz before a time or two.
My history & philosophy of medicine teachers reminded me that in the ancient times we had no therapeutic options. All we could do in the dark cold areas of the caves we then lived in was to be there & act as a witness that a fellow human being had lived & was now dying. We stayed until they died & then we told their story.
Eventually our therapeutic options are always exhausted & we , like our ancestors all we can do is be there.
I have always considered Palliative Care as an honour & find that a well managed death is as satisfying as a well managed delivery. Indeed, both involve the transition from one form of existence to another.

Kate   4/07/2019 7:10:07 AM

What a beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing it. It gives me faith in our profession as a gear up for another busy day at the office. You are a truly “good doctor”. Thank you.

Steve Hambleton   4/07/2019 7:10:30 AM

Your story reminds me of why I studied medicine and chose General Practice as a career. It's not the money, certainly not the next level B - it's the humanity and the compassion and the ability to make a difference at personal level. Bravo Genevieve. I hope someone like you is there for me when I need them.

Carolyn Ee   4/07/2019 7:16:01 AM

Genevieve, what a beautiful, human thing you have done. You Let go of the need to fix, to fuss, to chastise, to solve. You connected with another human being in his last moments. I love this story so much. Thank you for sharing.

Dr Marlene Wessels   4/07/2019 8:12:01 AM

What a truly amazing heart warming story.Genevieve you did WELL.
It surely must have touched you deeply in so many ways.
Just hope you have a kind ,understanding supportive partner to see to your needs.

Kassandra   4/07/2019 8:58:08 AM

This is a touching story, but I feel we as GPs know too many of them. These types of stories need to reach the public, they need to understand the unbiased , very affordable, kind and compassionate care we can, and do, provide on an everyday basis to the most needful. I hope this story finds its way to a popular news source!! Look after yourself too.

Caron Burton   4/07/2019 9:06:29 AM

Beautiful story Genevieve. Medicine for the heart.

Chris D Hogan   4/07/2019 9:58:46 AM

Kassandra, RACGP is trying to collect such stories & there are many places to share them. NewsGP is one place, ShareGP another .
I am Deputy Chair of the History Committee & we are keen to collect the stories of GPs as biographies, reminiscences & even as obituaries

Mahalekshmi selvanathan   4/07/2019 11:37:27 AM

Such a beautiful heart warming story

Lisa Opie   4/07/2019 4:42:20 PM

A great story, and clearly you are a great doctor, Genevieve. A great example of meeting the patient where they are,not expecting them always to come to where we are (as humans).

Mohammed   4/07/2019 6:33:55 PM

‘I … don’t want … to die … alone. Please … stay.’

Simply powerful writing, and equally magnanimous, selfless work.
Thank you.

Steve Trumble   4/07/2019 8:57:15 PM

For a man who had been so cruelly lied to ... to then be allowed to die with the hope of love, that is true compassion. Beautiful writing, Genevieve, from a beautiful heart.

Charlene Chideme   5/07/2019 6:46:53 AM

I was brought to tears reading your story...Thank you for sharing. Such courage and compassion is truly inspirational. Indeed, you have helped all of us humbly remember the true meaning of being GP’s.

Dr Clare Matheson   5/07/2019 10:11:40 AM

Dr Yates, this was a beautiful & heart-warming story that brought me to tears. Thank you for what you did for this man, & for what I'm sure you do for so many others in your community, every day.

Dr Kelly Seach   5/07/2019 10:38:32 AM


Dr. Everest Nkire   6/07/2019 5:32:19 AM

Well done Genevieve, We truly have a lot to learn from you. I feel however that the Medical Association , not only the RACGP needs to do more to educate and protect the public against these unclear and outrageously expensive faith/ natural healers who peddle often false hopes and alternative therapies, I have had heaps of experience with them while practicing previously in Africa and have lost numerous patients and relatives due to their activities as well. I'm dismayed this is also gaining traction here in Australia and the pattern seems to be the same. Patients are milked of their hard earned cash and kicked out in worse medical shapes as soon as the funds dry up or they are left worse than dead. Many end up back to the GP or the public health institutions well beyond any salvageable conditions only to to die.

Sudarma munathanthiri   6/07/2019 6:27:12 AM

A truly humbling story of kindness! This is what makes us wake up & go to work everyday. Amid the chaos there are moments where we can really help humanity. Thanks Geneview for sharing this beautiful story . It brought tears to my eyes too !

Emma Bucknell   6/07/2019 7:06:52 AM

Cure sometimes. Treat Often. Comfort always.
A timely reminder that medicine is so much more than pharmacology. Thankyou for sharing

Ramzan ABD AZIS   6/07/2019 7:58:38 AM

The true meaning of integrative medicine as oppose to what the other “healer” offered him Genevieve. You gave him the real treatment beyond financial gain. It’s really a touching story

Kenny Corbett   6/07/2019 9:04:09 AM

‘The miserable have no other medicine But only hope.‘
Sadly Genevieve I remember doing a pleural tap in a lady who had traveled from Singapore to probably the same establishment in similar circumstances. For metastatic cancer. She died a few days later thousands of kilometres away from her family. What you did was beautiful. Thanks