It has been two weeks since I found out that my grandmother was in the hospital, ten days since her surgery, five days since I last spoke to her, four days since she moved to hospice, two days since the last time she was awake. For 81 years my grandmother has been a vibrant, healthy woman. Bike riding, swimming, square dancing, crafting, and enjoying time with her boyfriend filled her days in her small Florida retirement community.
She must have known that she was sick. Colon cancer does not reach stage IV without a person experiencing symptoms. Waiting, ignoring, and deferring treatment was her choice; I respect that.
The difficulty comes with the swiftness of decline - a sudden drop on the carnival ride that leaves one's heart in their throat. As a nurse, as a granddaughter, and as a person I want to be there for her. I want to swab her dry lips, arrange her pillows, and hold her hand.
The gulf between me and her bedside is filled with geography, time, money, and obligations to my family and work. The guilt at not being there to care for her is enormous. After all, I work with cancer patients daily. I do all of the things that I want to do for her for strangers. Wait...I do it for strangers.
Another family recently experienced a profound loss. I first met Ms. Smith when she was recovering from cancer surgery on my unit. She was beautiful, kind, generous, and funny. She was a gentle soul and I could tell that she had worked with children for most of her life.
When I meet patients like her, my fondest hope is that I will never see them again.
Don't take that the wrong way.
If I don't see them it means that they are doing well.
Ms. Smith was readmitted to the unit more times than I can remember with complications from her treatment. Despite losing her hair, appetite, and eventually her physical mobility, she never lost the qualities that made her so special to the staff and so loved by her family. In her last days I was her nurse. I swabbed her lips, I kept her dry, and I gave her medications to keep her comfortable. When she passed I paid my last respects as I placed her in the shroud.
Unsurprisingly Ms. Smith has been on my mind for the past two weeks.
I believe my memories of caring for her are helping me cope with the fact that I cannot be there for my own grandmother. I also believe that there is a nurse somewhere in Florida who is caring for my grandmother in the same way that he/she would care for their own family member.
Providing nursing care for the sick and dying requires a sort of suspended reality. That is not a stranger in that bed, that is your mother, father, grandparent, or child. As a profession, we have a collective belief in the Golden Rule.
This belief may be tested daily by the stresses of the job but we must never let it waiver. Somewhere out there a family member is holding out hope that you are treating their loved one as your own. To every nurse that reads this, please keep the belief in the Golden Rule alive because, one day, as I have, you may find yourself in a similar situation.