Written by: Emily Jamieson, RN, BSN, CHPN
What does it feel like to come face-to-face with your own mortality? To stare death right in the eye and know that there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it? As an oncology nurse, I have, unfortunately, cared for many patients in this very situation.
Cancer, in my opinion, is the great equalizer, because it can affect any person at any time regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Your entire world changes when handed a cancer diagnosis. The blissful idea that life is infinite is shattered when one is quickly forced to come to terms with a cancer diagnosis. I have witnessed even the most stoic of patients crumble like a house of cards when they see that ominous look in their oncologist’s eyes. The look that means, “I’m afraid the news isn’t good.” In that moment, the patient has to make a choice: accept or deny their fate.
My positive thoughts on death
My relationship with death started my first day of my preceptorship. Entering the oncology floor where I eventually got my first nursing job. My preceptor pulled me aside and warned me that I would see a lot of death on the floor. Instead of making it something to be afraid of, she said something to me that forever changed my perspective on death. She told me, “Em, you will have the unique experience to be present when someone takes their last breaths. Being with them as their soul separates from the earthly body that’s caused them so much pain and suffering”. That was it. This thought-process was all I’d need to turn something so grim into something beautiful.
Since that day, I’ve sat with many patients as they took their last breaths. I’ve grown close to many of them, but I very rarely let their deaths affect me. To me, their death was the ultimate release from the pain and misery that I witnessed and tried, often unsuccessfully, to palliate.
We often celebrate the beauty of birth because life is brought into this world. However, we rarely celebrate the beauty of death. I think that is a shame. A peaceful death—one that is absent of any suffering at all—is, ultimately, the one thing everyone desires. As a society we need to be more accepting and welcoming of death. Only when we accept it, do we really begin to appreciate the power and beauty of a “good” death.
WHY ONCOLOGY?… IT’S THE PATIENTS
While my overall relationship with death is a positive one, I recognize this is not always the case. I’ve witnessed many peaceful deaths, but I have also had the displeasure of witnessing several terrible ones. Not everyone is destined to go quietly. Many times, the reactions to these deaths, from both patients and their family members, have burrowed themselves deep within my heart.
Whether it be the parent of a 25-year-old cancer patient who, despite several rounds of chemo and years of fighting, finally decides that their body has had enough. Or the 45-year-old successful businessman who finds himself more alone than ever. Forced to face death on his own after alienating himself from friends and family to further his career. Maybe it’s the 30-year-old mother. Sacrificing her own body and forgoing treatments so that her unborn baby can live a full, healthy life. Or the 85-year-old patriarch of a huge family. He decides to go through another brutal round of chemotherapy so he might live long enough to see the birth of his 5th great-grandchild.
These are the stories of my patients and their families whose relationships with death were complicated. None of them wanted to face their mortality until the final moment. There’s a moment where people realize that this is the true turning point in their lives. One can either accept the inevitable or try, unsuccessfully, to fight it. There are other stories of patients who chose to accept their fates and pass peacefully, without regret.
Saying goodbye to each patient as they’re discharged home with hospice or remain on the unit until they pass. Their stories live on within me.
I hold them all in my heart to remind me why I chose to be an oncology nurse. I chose to be there for my patients in their final moments, to provide comfort to them as they face the inevitable. While their names fade, their faces and memories continue to inspire me and the care I provide to each and every one of my patients. Without them, I would not be the nurse I am today. For that, I am eternally grateful.
See more of Em’s stories on IG: @thatspitfirenurseem