12: A Measure of Love

12: A Measure of Love

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

A Measure of Love

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength; loving someone deeply gives you courage.

~Lao Tzu

“Come with me.” Dr. Warren, a pediatric oncologist, strode toward the patient room I had left just a minute earlier. I squelched a sigh, turned around and followed him in.

I was a newly minted registered nurse and this was my second week in Pediatrics. I’d envisioned myself on an adult medical-surgical floor at this hospital where I’d done my clinical training, but the only vacancy had been in this unit. So I swallowed my fears about working with children and took the job.

The patient, fourteen-year-old Janice, sat propped up on pillows. Her parents watched the doctor. Her mother’s trembling fingers wrapped around her necklace while her father paced between Janice’s bed and the empty one next to the door. He stopped when Dr. Warren entered.

I stood by the door clenching my hands behind my back, ready to dash out of the room at the first opportunity. Besides needing to pass meds, I had five other patients who needed care.

Dr. Warren asked the parents to take a seat. Janice’s mother did so, but her father refused. He demanded, “What’s the verdict, Doctor?”

Dr. Warren opened Janice’s chart. In a low, we’ve-done-all-we-can-do voice, he informed them Janice’s cancer was back and had spread. He offered no further hope.

The room suddenly seemed too small and the air too heavy. I fidgeted with my watch and my eyes scanned the bedside table for the box of tissues.

Janice’s mother gasped.

Her husband’s face reddened and his hands balled into fists. He glared at the doctor. “Get out.”

“Daddy!” Janice’s raspy voice was barely above a whisper.

Dr. Warren held up his hand, “Mr. Barnes, I can understand how devastating this is, but…”

“No. No, you can’t.” The dad’s voice broke and he stepped toward Janice. Husband and wife stood like sentries on either side of her bed. “Just leave us with our daughter. Please.”

Dr. Warren frowned and I thought he’d try to persuade the parents to put their emotions aside momentarily. Instead he checked his watch and said, “I’ll give you some time. We’ll discuss it later.” With that he spun around and slipped past me out the door.

I froze. I’d never dealt with a dying patient. Even in nursing school I’d been the student with those lucky patients who were admitted, treated, and released. In a tiny voice, I asked, “Would you like me to leave too?”

Mr. Barnes ignored me. His wife, tears streaming down her face, sat silently on the edge of Janice’s bed, embraced her daughter and rocked back and forth. Fearing I’d start to cry too, I hustled out of the room.

In the hallway, I blew out a breath and the lump in my throat dissolved. I shook off the sorrow I felt for the Barnes family and proceeded to pass the rest of my meds. As I did so, though, the niggling feeling that I hadn’t done my best for Janice and her family snuck up on me. I completed my charting, then reluctantly returned to her room.

Her father was nowhere to be seen, but her mother sat on a chair next to the bed, holding Janice’s hand in silence. Both looked up.

“Can I do anything for you?” Such an inane question. What could I do for a dying girl and her mother?

Mrs. Barnes pushed her hair back from her face. “I’m sorry my husband flew off the handle like that.”

I was surprised by her apology. I should’ve been the one apologizing for escaping from the room. “It’s understandable.” I really was unsure what to say and was uncomfortable with the silence, so I blurted out, “Would you like me to page Dr. Warren now?”

“Not yet.” Mrs. Barnes stroked Janice’s cheek. “My husband is in the cafeteria. I think I’ll join him.” She gently asked her daughter, “Will you be all right while I’m there?” Janice nodded and Mrs. Barnes rose and kissed her. “Be back real soon.”

That left me alone with my patient. We stumbled through a short, stilted conversation. I desperately hoped her parents would return quickly. Janice, looking out the window, said, “I’m their only kid. My parents are taking this hard.”

I said a quick, silent prayer that my reply wouldn’t make things worse. “They must love you a lot.”

She nodded. “Yeah.” She looked at me with dark eyes that contrasted with her pale skin. “I think they’re afraid. You know, about what it’s gonna be like.”

I glanced at my watch and reminded myself I had other patients. But I didn’t want to leave Janice just then. “Be like?”

“You know, when I’m gone.” She said it so matter-of-factly she could have been talking about her family’s long-dead pet. “But I’m not. Scared, I mean.”

Just then her parents returned and asked me to page Dr. Warren. After doing so, I went about caring for my other patients.

At the end of my shift, I was still thinking about Janice and was eager to talk to her more.

The next morning in report I heard that her parents wanted everything done for their daughter, despite Dr. Warren’s prognosis. My heart grew heavy knowing all that the girl would have to endure, only to succumb to the cancer anyway. I made my way to her room where she lay half-awake.

“Good morning, Janice. Just need to take your temperature.”

She struggled to sit up. “My mom and dad want me to have all that awful stuff again.”

“How are you with that?”

She shrugged. “I don’t want it. I’m gonna die anyway.”

“Did you tell them that?”

“Couldn’t. It’s important to them.”

I cocked my head. “You’re going to go through that so they feel better?”

She nodded. “When I’m dead… ” Her voice caught, but she went on. “They didn’t say it, but I think they want to feel like, you know…”

“Like they did everything?”

“Yeah. They’ll feel better.”

I told myself to keep quiet, but I couldn’t stop. “What about how you feel?”

She struggled with the next words. “It’s okay. I’ll be dead soon. They have the rest of their lives to deal with me being gone.”

I fought back tears, amazed at the measure of her love for her parents. “You’re very brave.”

She shrugged, then slid back down into the pillow. “I’m really tired now. I’m going to sleep.”

The rest of my day was busy and I only had time to pop in her room, say hello to her parents, and check vitals and her IV. I was off the next day, but when I returned the day after, I learned Janice had passed away, her family by her side. I wondered if, because she was selflessly willing to endure more pain for love of her parents, God hadn’t given her the gift of a quick, relatively easy death.

I think back now to Janice and am still humbled by the girl’s willingness to sacrifice herself for the sake of love. While her parents had done everything they could for her, she had done everything she could for them.

~Carole Fowkes

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