The Other Side of Healing

Submitted by Dawn Picton, RN

Tags: cancer death end of life family oncology patient experience

The Other Side of Healing

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As nurses, we have all had an experience that stands out in our minds of a time when patient has touched our lives as much as we have touched theirs and reminded us why we love this profession as much as we do. As a newer nurse, I was very much focused on helping my patients get better and go home—this is where I derived my job satisfaction. Prior to meeting Wade and his wife, Carol, I never knew the powerful role a nurse could play in helping a patient and their family transition when getting better and going home is not an option. 

Wade was an oncology patient who was well-liked and well-known at our facility due to his many prior hospitalizations for complications related to his bladder cancer. He was a grateful, funny man, who would make jokes like “who brought the muscles?” when I would use all of my 5’3” frame to assist in boosting him up in bed. Carol was his sweet-tempered wife of almost sixty years. She had a warm personality that made you like her the second you met her. Carol would sit by the side of Wade’s bed and they would talk about their kids, their house, and trips they had gone on in their younger days. They were the perfect picture of a lifetime of happiness together.

After two weeks of hospitalization, Wade’s condition had not improved and his prognosis was poor. He had been battling bladder cancer for five years, and eventually Wade and his family made the difficult decision to go on hospice care.  As expected, he continued to decline and gradually became unresponsive. During Wade’s final two days of life, I helped heal him in a different way than I was used to—by helping him to have as peaceful and painless death as possible. I did my best to make sure he was comfortable by repositioning him in bed, rewetting his mouth with swabs, rubbing lotion on his hands, and administering oral morphine when he displayed signs of pain. 

I also did my best to be there for Carol and the rest of Wade’s family, offering a sympathetic ear or much needed hug. One of the moments I witnessed that brought a tear to my eye was seeing Carol in her usual spot at Wade’s bedside, holding his hand, and telling him “I’ll be here the rest of the day, will you?” Being able to be there for Carol, and place a hand on her shoulder in her time of need, showed me that the healing role of a nurse extends beyond those who will recover to the patients that pass on and those who grieve them. 

Wade passed away later that day, surrounded by his family. When the family was leaving, I hugged Carol and told her I was sorry for her loss, and she thanked me for all I did for her husband. The next day, I received an email from my boss. The email described how Wade’s wife had approached my boss and told her about the wonderful care Wade had received while he was at our hospital and how his last words were “I want to die here.” Carol told her I was a “blonde-haired angel” and made Wade’s last days comfortable. I cried while reading the email. Prior to that experience, I had only known the satisfaction that came from helping others return to health and go home. I now know that healing extends to those who need to be comforted in death and the family they leave behind.