I can’t even count how many days I have forgotten to eat, or to use a restroom or check the mirror to make sure I am still somewhat intact. Despite the many times we remind others the importance of self care, most nurses do not follow their own advice very well. I got in the car after spending hours with a family recently, and I looked in the review mirror; my hair was a mess, my mascara was half an inch below the lashes and “tired” was written all over my face. Prior to getting in the car, however, it’s like you have this amazing abundance of energy and the more a patient or their family needs you, the more energy you have and it doesn’t seem to run low… until you get into your car, and then in your front door… and you sit down to finally eat and begin to chart and you crash. Your eyes burn so deep it’s hard to keep them open, but you make it through, you finish the paperwork, and several hours later you drag yourself to bed. And the next day, you do it all over again.
Working in hospice is not easy, and I think most of us will remind you of that often. It is physically and emotionally draining to the point where you almost feel depleted and yet at the same time, it fills your soul to the brim. Why do we do this work? I am sure we all have different reasons, but at the end of the day, at least for myself and most of the people I work with, we do this work because we were called to. I think you have to be.
I was laid off from a job that I thought I would end up doing forever. It was not particularly rewarding and although I made more than I do now, it was a job that paid the bills and helped me support my family and that was my priority. My friend was dying of prostate cancer and his wife needed to work, so she hired me to take care of him. This man was one of the very best men I have ever known and I watched as cancer took away all of the shiny parts of him and that broke my heart. I slept in a twin bed next to his, I made sure he ate and bathed and took his pills. And I watched as the hospice team came in and out every few days and compassionately cared for him, as well as his wife. After he passed away, I knew this was something I wanted to do, so I went back to school and became a caregiver first, then a home health aid and then a nurse. It was the very best decision I have ever made.
One of the most important lessons you learn is that this is not about you; you’ve probably heard me say that a million times, but I can assure you… you will hear it again, because it is the message that all of us in hospice need to remember. So when you walk in the door of the home of a patient who is dying, you have to be able to let go of anything you might be dealing with, and give yourself completely to the patient and those at the bedside. From that moment on you are fully present for someone else at the most painful, most intimate and most delicate time of their life. You might possibly be the difference between painful and peaceful and that can be a very big responsibility.
Every word you say to your patient or their loved ones is important and it is your job to help relieve them of fear and assure them they can trust you. None of this is easy, but if you are successful and you manage to calm the room, reduce the distress and somehow make the landing just a little softer it is one of the most amazing feelings you can ever have.
As I write this blog, it is after spending many hours with a family helping them to navigate the dying process of a woman that has very clearly earned the title of matriarch. She struggled most of the day with pain and discomfort, but before I walked out the door, she was calm and she was peaceful and her family was thankful. They invited me to stand with them next to her bed as they each said a prayer for her and for one another. To have such ache, is to have known much love... there was ache in that room, but there was also so much love. I am honored to have witnessed the care and compassion they showed her and each other.
As I walked out to my car, I could feel my eyes burning from the tears and I realized it had been hours since I had eaten or used the restroom, and I became so tired that just closing the door to my car took effort. I walked into my house, I sat down on the couch and I sighed… what a day it has been. What a wonderful, amazing, beautiful day it has been.
Not a moment goes by that I am not thankful for all of the lessons this work teaches me. I am constantly being reminded how fragile and precious life can be, that love is a gift that should never be taken for granted, and that every single moment matters. It is difficult work, but it is also incredibly beautiful work. I cannot imagine ever doing anything else.
Photo Credit: Frances Freyberg Blakburn
I invite you to visit her site: www.francesfreyberg.com Her photographs grace the walls of our hospice house, and our main office. They are all so incredibly beautiful.