Thursday, October 16, 2008

Finding a Language,
Creating a Space

Pallimed Case Conferences ( is closed to comments and new posts as of April 25, 2013.
This site will stay online as an archived source, but will no longer be updated.
For active posts on these cases and new cases go to 

By David Barnard, Ph.D.
Vol 1, No. 4 - October 2001
(Original PDF*)

Mr. L.O. was an elderly Russian immigrant to Canada, admitted to the Palliative Care Unit of a Canadian hospital with advanced rectal cancer. When L.O. was first presented to the multidisciplinary team, his major problems were identified as persistent rectal pain and anxiety. The initial workup of the pain suggested a neuropathic component, and adjustments were made to L.O.’s medications. His complaints of pain and anxiety persisted over the next several days.

L.O. then began to experience terrifying nightmares. Even during the day, when he was awake, he would have what he called “flashes” of frightening imagery, but the nightmares were the worst. L.O. was so fearful of them that he resisted falling asleep as much as he could. The images were horrific, often violent, with L.O. sometimes being the victim of the violence, sometimes the perpetrator. A CT scan was ordered to investigate the possibility of brain metastases as a contributing factor.

At the same time, the attending palliative care physician had a long interview with L.O., in which they explored the content of the nightmares in depth. L.O. was an amateur artist, and the physician suggested that he might sketch the images in his dreams, or, if not the exact images, some rendering of how they made him feel. L.O. did this. Subsequent conversations revealed that L.O. was estranged from his children; the main reason that he needed to be in the Palliative Care Unit was that none of his children cared enough about him to support him while he lived at home. L.O.’s sketches showed a small figure—himself—cowering at the bottom of a deep pit, with another figure standing far above, looking down.

The physician suggested that L.O., who had become physically well enough for a weekend pass, bring some of his previous paintings back with him to the Palliative Care Unit. Within a few days, the sound of hammering could be heard from L.O’s room. He was hanging his pictures, 15 or 20 in all. Most were landscapes, but there were also a portrait of a lovely young woman, and a winter scene, all in black and silvery white, of a snow- and ice-lined brook leading into a dark woods. The next morning L.O. reported that he had dreamed of eating a chicken dinner.


Two features of this case are striking. The first is the necessity of combining medical and psychosocial approaches to L.O.’s nightmares and overwhelming anxiety. Both the CT scan and several psychoactive medications were appropriate and helpful. But it was the in-depth exploration of the content of the imagery, and even more, the suggestion that L.O. use his art to capture his emotional state in drawings, that appeared to unlock the insights and emotions that lay beneath the anxiety and terror. The physician succeeded in helping L.O. find a language to express himself more effectively and concretely than he had been able to do at a purely verbal level. The physician found a form of expression that “fit” the patient, even though that form was somewhat unconventional.

The second feature concerns the possibility of creating a living space in the Palliative Care Unit where L.O. could work his way to a feeling of peace and safety, despite his estrangement. This use of the inpatient palliative care service would almost certainly be impossible in the United States, with our minimal lengths of stay and our restrictive utilization review requirements. L.O. died in this Canadian palliative care unit many days after his physical and emotional symptoms had been brought firmly under control. But the inpatient environment remained critical to his spiritual well-being. Even though the Canadian health care system faces some of the same economic pressures as that in the U.S., the possibility still exists there for more flexibility to respond to the broadest range of patient or family need, compared to the limits imposed by hospice and palliative care financing in the U.S.


1. Pratt A, Wood M (eds). Art Therapy in Palliative Care. London: Routledge, 1998.

2. Lynn J. Serving patients who may die soon and their families: The role of hospice and other services. JAMA, 2001, 285:925-932. (No open access pdf)

3. Raphael C, Ahrens J, Fowler N. Financing end-of-life care in the USA. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2001, 94:458-461. (Open access PDF avail from Journal and PubMed Central)

(CS: Minor formatting edits for readability)

0 Responses to “Finding a Language,
Creating a Space”