I am a proud hospice nurse. I love what I do. But, I find myself dreading my answer when people ask me about what I do. Typically, the responses involve some sort of “oh” and the loss of eye contact as they look down. “I couldn’t ever do what you do” “I don’t know how you do it” are usually the next words that float out. But, recently, a statement that I have heard repeatedly caused me to reframe responses, as well as my own thinking.
I had just finished working and was still in my scrubs and name badge. Stopping by a pharmacy, I needed to just pick up a few things and would be on my way home. My scrubs betrayed my wish for anonymity. In the era of Covid, some see scrubs and are compelled to ask what you do. Today, a fresh faced clerk who at first glance seemed to so innocent in the path of life, that I found it hard to believe that she had ever experienced pain or heartbreak.
After the customary greeting, this young lady asked how I spent my days. “I am a hospice nurse,” I started and as I tried to continue, she interjected, “ that is so awful for you! How can you do that? It’s so depressing! I would never do that! It just chips away at your happiness, I bet!”
It took me a minute to answer because I had never had anyone react that particular way. Her face, a mix of sympathy and confusion, seemed to be hungry for my answer. “Well, I am sure your job can be hard, too” I responded. “Death is a natural part of life. It’s a subject most like to avoid, but, avoiding it won’t make it go away.” She went on to tell me how sorry she was that I was a hospice nurse, as if being one was forced upon me. That the thought that I chose this was almost unfathomable. I almost wanted to reach beyond the plexiglas and hug her because she seemed so sad for me.
“You know, I chose this area of nursing. Hospice has been such a life changing experience for me, in all the best ways.” My answer stunned her and she asked for clarification. “I have seen the best and the worst in humanity. I have seen love in the purest of forms. I have held the hands of the most amazing people and helped them pass with dignity.” I felt like I was talking her ear off, but, each time I stopped, she would ask for more details.
Hospice has allowed me to spread my wings, as a nurse. It has given me confidence in my nursing abilities. It has taught me to always trust my gut instinct. Those moments when time is screaming for me to move on, but, something is making me stay. We often talk about the miracle of birth, but, being present for someone’s transition is equally as awe inspiring. To be here one second and gone the next, that still overwhelms my mind.
I never knew real empathy until I chose hospice. There are families that can be so overwhelming and frustrating. They have taught me that patience has no limit. My eyes have seen love that is so palpable it crosses time and space. Forgiveness, that was not granted for entire lifetimes, be uttered with more feeling and sincerity. The bedside reunions. The promises of love “until we meet again”.
No doubt there are difficult moments. Moments I have questioned my own sanity for being a hospice nurse. Those moments are microscopic in comparison to the gifts that hospice has brought me. To be present when a family feels their world is turning upside down and you provide the comfort they need, is a feeling words could never do justice for.
My checkout at the pharmacy took a bit longer than I had anticipated. I was just hoping that my words were like seeds and a few might fall perfectly, blooming a new understanding in this curious girl. I gathered my purchases and thanked her. I could tell I had given her an awful lot to think about. I didn’t think much of it until a few days later, when I returned to the pharmacy.
As soon as I walked in, I heard her yelling for me. I smiled and walked over, thinking she was just being friendly. “I have to tell you,” she started, “I thought a lot about what you said. My uncle is pretty sick and I had a long talk with my aunt about hospice. She was against it at first, but, I kept on. They are making the call tomorrow.” Overwhelmed, I found my eyes getting teary. Another person who will be able to spend their last days comfortable and in a manner of their choosing. Knowing that fills my soul with gladness. That very moment is the single biggest gift hospice gives.