Originally published: 30 January 2020
Author: Rachel Clarke
Published by: Little Brown
Genre: Autobiography, Medical Memoir
Length: 11 hrs, 14 mins
Listening Dates: 17 June-3 September 2020
As a specialist in palliative medicine, Dr Rachel Clarke chooses to inhabit a place many people would find too tragic to contemplate. Every day she tries to bring care and comfort to those reaching the end of their lives and to help make dying more bearable.
Rachel’s training was put to the test in 2017 when her beloved GP father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She learned that nothing – even the best palliative care – can sugar-coat the pain of losing someone you love.
And yet, she argues, in a hospice there is more of what matters in life – more love, more strength, more kindness, more joy, more tenderness, more grace, more compassion – than you could ever imagine. For if there is a difference between people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it is simply this: that the terminally ill know their time is running out, while we live as though we have all the time in the world.
Dear Life is a book about the vital importance of human connection, by the doctor we would all want by our sides at a time of crisis. It is a love letter – to a father, to a profession, to life itself.
When the lovely Emily at Little Brown offered me a proof copy of Dear Life in January I jumped at the chance. I love medical memoirs…I’ve always had a fondness for any medical TV dramas and documentaries so I was keen to read this. Unfortunately, life got in the way and it got pushed down the pile. During lockdown I signed up to Audible as I thought it would be a good way to get to some of those non-fiction reads I never seem to have time for, so downloaded Dear Life to listen to instead and I’m so glad I did.
Clarke herself narrates the audio book and the emotion in her voice really comes through and makes it such an emotional book to listen to. Starting with her childhood, she details how she hero-worshipped her father who was a doctor. After choosing to study English at University, and then becoming a journalist, she later decided she would retrain as a doctor and follow her father into medicine.
One of the things she noticed as she worked in hospitals as a junior doctor was how the feelings of patients were often forgotten – they were often given devastating diagnoses, but the medical professionals often forgot to treat their patients as human beings with feelings, usually because they were just too busy.
Clarke wanted to be able to help the patients who were going to die and decided to go into palliative care and work in a hospice. In Dear Life, we hear about the patients she came across, how surprisingly many of them are calm about their mortality, but how some feel coming to the hospice is the same as being given up on. Every story she told touched my heart – the stories of the younger patients, including a woman in her 20s who just wanted to get married before she died are heart-breaking. The hospice staff are so caring – they bend over backwards to make the final days of their residents comfortable.
When Clarke’s own father was diagnosed with cancer, and it becomes terminal, she has to face death on a more personal level, from the other side. Hearing her narrate her father’s illness and death made me cry.
This was a wonderful book. Hospices are such amazing places and the professionals who provide palliative care are absolute angels. Clarke is a gifted writer and Dear Life is an honest, tender and moving memoir that will move everyone who reads it.
My own mum died of cancer in 2014. She was a remarkable woman who accepted her diagnosis with dignity. From the moment she got her terminal she decided she wanted to die in a hospice and spent a lot of time at St Giles Hospice in Lichfield in the year before she died, taking part in activities and enjoying meals there.
She took a drastic turn for the worst on 26th December 2014 and I dashed back home to be with her. Neither of us slept much that night and in the morning we agreed it was time to call the hospice. But they said as it was Christmas and they only had a skeleton staff, they would not be able to take her. While we were trying to decide what to do, a fantastic, no-nonsense health visitor turned up and rang them herself and they agreed mum could go if we could get her there ourselves.
Once there, she had the most amazing care. Her room was lovely with her own bathroom, a TV and comfortable bed. My sister and I were brought meals while we sat with her. As she deteriorated further on the night of the 28th December, they set us up with beds in her room so we could be near her and we were both able to be there when the time came. She was comfortable and well cared for an we couldn’t have wished for better care.
Hospice’s are truly wonderful places and I am so grateful for the experience we had. Thank you to Little Brown for my gifted copy.
About the author:
Before going to medical school, Dr Rachel Clarke was a television journalist and documentary maker. She now specialises in palliative medicine, caring deeply about helping patients live the end of their lives as fully and richly as possible – and in the power of human stories to build empathy and inspire change.
Her first book, the Sunday Times bestselling Your Life in My Hands, reveals what life is like for a junior doctor on the NHS frontline.
Her latest memoir, The Sunday Times number 3 bestseller Dear Life, is based on her work in a hospice. It explores love, loss, grief, dying and what really matters at the end of life.
Rachel has written for the Guardian, Sunday Times, New York Times, Independent, Telegraph, Prospect, BMJ, NEJM and Lancet. She has appeared on BBC Radio 4 Today, BBC Newsnight, Channel 4 News, BBC Woman’s Hour, ITV News and Sky News, among others.
She lives in Oxfordshire with her husband and two children.