“You can always tell that a job is difficult when you tell fellow nurses you are a hospice nurse and they say “Oh, wow, that has to be so rough!” Truth be told, this job isn’t easy. It’s not one you take because the hours work with your lifestyle or because you hope to have weekends off. There is one reason to be a hospice nurse and that is you love being there for your patients and their families.
This past week was an exceptionally difficult one for me. I lost 4 patients in about a 24 hour timespan. The last one stung the most and really embodies all the reasons why I love doing what I do. My favorite fellow was in his late 80s, with a Staten Island accent you could hear a mile away. Gruff on the surface but beneath that lay a heart that found a way to speak to my own. I didn’t care what kind of life he had lead before I met him, I just knew that he was an anxious sort who would stop me every time I was listening to a different part of his lung sounds and ask “Are they getting worse or better?” He had moved in with his daughter and grandchildren, all under the age of 7, who would help me assess Pap, one holding the blood pressure cuff and another making sure he held still. Though he tried not to show it, I could see the small upturn in the corner of his lips – he loved every second of the extra love.
His visits were a hike for me, almost an hour and a half one way, so, we would sit and chat after. He told me about his wife who had passed and how much he missed her. They used to go boating on this one lake and he was requesting his ashes be sprinkled there once the time came. When we laughed together, it was the kinds of laugh that vibrates down to your core. His nose would scrunch up in this funny little way as he chuckled. I would fill his med box and he would always hover picking up any scraps to put them straight in his little waste bag. His slender fingers trembling from all the medications, he would turn to me and say “ Mind the pills and I will mind the trash.”
As things do in our line of work, his health took a drastic turn for the worse. The man who wouldn’t let me leave without giving me a kiss on the cheek and telling me to always be careful, could now barely stay awake long enough to even acknowledge I was there. But, on my last visit, as he swam between this world and the next, I greeted him with our usual greeting as I held his hand and his eyes snapped open. Those beautiful blue pools turned to me and with the little strength he had and his weak voice whispered “My favorite Greek nurse is here.” His hand still in mine, skin so soft and almost transparent, his daughter and I just sat for a while and talked until he drifted to sleep.
He passed about 6 hours later, quite peacefully. I had not been there, and even though it was after hours, I agreed to go. The ride out was almost torturous because it felt never ending. As I finally got there and his daughter opened the door, her eyes caught mine. As she fell crying into my embrace, it was as if this was the first real time she was able to exhale. This whole time of his illness and transition she had been holding her breath and now, the sweet, cleansing and freeing exhale.
The children were watching tv and as soon as they saw me a chorus of “Nurse Henen” filled the silence. Pretty soon, I had one child wrapped on either leg and another in my arms. The were just so desperate to tell me that Pap didn’t need to use the big machine to take his breaths anymore and that he wasn’t going to be sick ever again. We talked for a while, but it was the oldest who later came privately and said that she knew this would be my last visit. She sweetly asked if she could have my phone number because she would miss me. Of course, she got it.
My attention turned to my now free patient. He looked so peaceful – unencumbered by all his respiratory gear and no longer anxious, he was calm. I told his family I would bathe him, his daughter said I didn’t have to, but I knew him. He wouldn’t let that fly. He was that sharp dressed kind of guy, always. So it was only fitting in his final send off that I make that possible for him. As I bathed him, my tears mixed with his bath water, cleansing us both.
As I prepared to leave, the hugs were plentiful and tight, and the kids covered me with their kisses. I turned and glanced back one last time at my dear patient, wishing him a safe passage and trying to sear every detail of him into my memory. The drive home was bittersweet, knowing it would be my last drive back. How many times had I made this drive thinking about making this last drive and here it was.
My phone beeped just as I walked through my door. It was my patient’s daughter with a text that read, “We just really wanted to thank you for everything. The past few months were awful and I know that my dad would have never made it as long as he did had you not been his nurse. We got to spend so much extra time with him and for that we could never tell you how grateful we are. He so looked forward to your visits. You were more than just his nurse. You were a bright spot, a rock in all of our lives. You love your job and it shows. Thank you isn’t enough. You made hell bearable. “
That, my friends, is exactly why I do what I do.”