By Heather Dowling
“He died healed. Totally at peace. No bitterness, no fear. A profound experience for me.”
Dr Doug Bridge leans in as he describes his father’s death. After a week of family visits and loving care, he died where he wanted to be – at home with his family. It’s hard not to feel a connection with a stranger when they share such an intimate moment from their past with you. But for Doug, that’s what life is about.
A Clinical Professor of the University of Western Australia (UWA), Doug has recently retired as the head of palliative care at Royal Perth Hospital (RPH).
From a small child he had always wanted to be a medical doctor, a missionary helping lives in a developing country. And for three years in his 30s he did live that dream in a village in Bangladesh. After persistent illness, however, he was forced to return.
“I wanted to live there forever – this was my life’s work, my great supreme Christian calling to be a missionary,” he said. “I’d trained for it, I’d done the language study for it, I’d set-up for it. And then it all fell to bits. I thought, ‘I can’t understand this. What’s it all mean?’ I had a real crisis.”
But, as Doug says, within suffering is an opportunity for growth.
In the early 1980s, after working as a general physician at Fremantle hospital, he was approached by Silver Chain Hospice Care Service to care for terminally ill patients when they needed to be hospitalised. Hospice care was new terrain in the medical field at the time, with Silver Chain the first organisation to care for dying patients in the home.
“It was scary stuff, there was no specialty, no textbooks, no training,” he said.
It became Doug’s calling. And from there he went on to work for the Cancer Council before becoming the head of palliative care at RPH in 1990, which also gave him the chance to teach his approach to students.
Much about his work, Doug says, is to do with healing a patient so they are ready to die. Doug reads me a quote from Dr Balfour Mount – a Canadian physician who created the term ‘palliative care’ – that he bases his work by: “Indeed, it is possible to die healed.”
“I believe a doctor is a healer,” Doug said. “And healing means bringing all the bits together, integrating, making human connections.”
Which is why palliative care became his life’s work and passion.
“It was truly holistic care. Everybody has a physical part to their life, and a mental part and a social part and a spiritual part. But I find most people, including me, are not integrated.
“It’s a task of our whole life, to become whole, integrated, and the word healing is critical here. Doctors are trained to cure diseases and I’m trying to say, ‘what about healing people?’ Not that we shouldn’t cure diseases, but as well as curing disease, it would be really good if we could heal people.”
An essential part of becoming healed is learning how to forgive. We all have some sort of bitterness in our lives, and while Doug says you can’t force a patient to do anything, he does encourage a dying person to make amends – whether that be to themselves or others. Quite often the last month of a terminally ill person’s life is spent calling old friends and family.
With the advances in medical science over the last hundred years, Doug believes that as a culture we have let spiritual care drop out of the practice. We’ve let science take over, forgetting that we are more than just physical beings.
It also means that we aren’t exposed to death as often.
“Australians don’t do death very well,” he said. “We actively avoid death. We obsess with death in the newspaper headlines every day. In terms of facing what it means we don’t do it. Which means that when a person’s dying it may be the first time they’ve really thought about death.”
For a doctor with such a high mortality rate, Doug knows that his role has touched the lives of many, both dying and not. He’s seen death and life as intertwined and has seen the good that can come out of this natural progression in life.
“It’s interesting that people facing death grow spiritually,” Doug said. “To the point where they say, ‘it’s been such a good journey, I’ve learnt so much. The cancer has been so good to me.’
“What they mean, is ‘facing my mortality has made me think about what matters’.”
This article first appeared in Revive, a publication of the WA Synod of the UCA.