"Joan Robinson: One Woman's Story," a documentary about the last two years in the life of a terminal cancer patient, will be shown on most PBS stations tonight. Tish Alsop, whose husband, columnist Stewart Alsop, told the story of his fight against leukemia in "Stay of Execution" before his death in 1974, previewed the film.
Watching the story of Joan and Eric Robinson's battle to live with Joan's cancer was a bruising and emotional experience for me. I had not realized how close to the surface are the memories of a similar struggle that my husband Stewart and I waged to live with leukemia. I was drained after the film finished, but I wish I had been able to help, to make it easier for them to achieve their goal of caring for Joan at home.
The hospice movement is really just that -- the wish of human beings to help and care for their fellows in time of sickness, suffering and death. It is sad that there was not a hospice organization to help the Robinsons when they needed it. Their story really shows why there has been such a tremendous response to the concept and the needs that these organizations fill.
There are three primary unmet needs that stand out vividly in the film.
The first is the need for adequate relief from pain. This is the right of every suffering dying person. It can be done, and is being done both here and in England, but it does not happen by chance. It takes skill, care, dedication and a willingness to admit that pain is a problem.
Pain seems to me to be the central physical issue in dying for modern man. Cancer is to us what the plague was to a 17th-century Londoner, a threat of dying in pain and loneliness, shunned by our fellow men. Modern medical advances have given us hope of cure for many malignant diseases, but science has not kept pace in the treatment of the dying. It offers the chance of more years of life, but when the end inevitably comes it is treated as a failure rather than as a natural event.
The second need is for trust and honest communication between doctor and the patient-family. There has to be time for all questions to be answered, some of them many times over. The loss of a sense of personal identity is hard enough to bear in serious sickness, without being made to feel unworthy of a little extra time. The discussion between Joan and Eric about whether they are being told the truth is a remainder of this need for trust. Joan's plea to Dr. Mozden, as he hovers by the door trying to leave, has a desperate tone: "Don't go, I have a page full of questions."
The third issue concerns me more, since the part of dying I know most about is surviving. I am a survivor like Eric; I shared many of his frustrations and feelings. There is a lot of guilt in being a survivor. Guilt at being alive and well, at having needs of your own, at feeling inadequate, at being impatient, at getting tired -- in fact at practically any feeling you can think of.
It is hard to deal with these feelings by yourself. Having gone through the Washington Hospice Society's volunteer training program I know that they provide the kind of help that survivors and families need in order to survive, as families, with the knowledge that their well-beloved had comfort and peace at the last.
After the film, the society will have volunteers to answer your questions at 525-7070.