69: A Nurse Named Michael

69: A Nurse Named Michael

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

A Nurse Named Michael

Those who learn to know death, rather than to fear and fight it, become our teachers about life.

~Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Larry had been complaining about a pain in his hip for quite some time. Instead of getting better, it worsened. Normally he avoided doctors, but the pain became unbearable and he had no choice but to make an appointment with our family physician.

When X-rays did not reveal the cause of the pain, he was referred to an orthopedic specialist who ordered an MRI. My worst fears were confirmed. Larry had prostate cancer that had metastasized to his bones.

The oncologist was honest and forthright in responding to our questions. Larry was much better at accepting the answers than I. The cancer was aggressive and terminal, but he could live up to three years by actively treating it.

After weighing the pros and cons of cancer therapy, we took the doctor’s advice. Larry began a combination of chemotherapy and radiation treatments immediately. There was never a question in my mind. I was adamant; we were going to fight this with any and all available means.

As expected, the treatments made Larry very weak and nauseated. And the cancer continued to spread. The doctor told us that another round of chemo might be helpful. Although Larry was hesitant, I, in my selfish need to keep him with me as long as possible, stubbornly turned a blind eye to the dreaded side effects. I persuaded him to continue with additional rounds of chemo and other treatments until nearly every option was exhausted. And the cancer continued to spread.

On our last visit the oncologist said, “Well, Larry, there is one more option. I think I can get you approved for a clinical trial with a new cancer-fighting drug. How would you feel about that?”

I squealed ecstatically, “Oh yes, of course! Anything. We’ll try anything!”

My mouth fell open when I heard Larry sob. “I can’t do this anymore. I am so sorry, but I just can’t.”

I couldn’t believe what he was saying. How could he just give up and die? I felt betrayed and angry.

Since Larry, not I, was his patient, the doctor wasn’t about to force him do something simply because his wife insisted. As we left for home, I convinced myself that I could change his mind with a little pleading.

Larry worsened quickly. A few days later, unable to keep food down, he was admitted to the hospital. Since there were no available rooms on oncology, he was given a bed on the post-operative floor, where patients were recovering from surgeries.

Although nurses came in and out of the room, I felt like Larry was mostly ignored because they had no idea what to do for him. They were used to dealing with post-op rather than terminal patients.

I felt neglected, as if nobody cared. We were alone in this huge hospital and all I could do was pray, so I did — a simple appeal for comfort and guidance.

Soon after I uttered my prayer, a tall young man in dark blue scrubs walked into the room. He introduced himself as Michael, our nurse for the evening shift.

I thought, “Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they’ve sent in a mere child to care for my husband.” I was certain he would take one look at this pathetic sick man and walk out the door just like the other nurses.

Instead, Michael grabbed a chair and scooted it over to my husband’s bedside. Sitting, he leaned in close. “How are you feeling, Larry?”

“I’m sorry, but I just want to give up and go home.”

He was so young, yet the nurse spoke with the wisdom of someone much older. “I know you’re tired, Larry. These treatments are brutal. If you decide to discontinue them, you shouldn’t feel as though you’re a failure. The life you’ve lived up to this point is what’s important, and that’s what your family and friends will remember about you. They don’t want you to have to be sick every day. They’d rather spend quality time with you.”

He turned to make sure I was listening before continuing. “My grandpa died a few months ago from cancer. The very best decision we made was to get hospice involved so he could live his final days in comfort. Like you, he didn’t want additional therapy just to prolong his life for a short time, so we respected his wishes. I’ll never forget my grandpa and all he taught me.”

He then turned toward me. “I really hope you will consider giving hospice a call. They are wonderful.”

Knowing this young man had experienced what my kids and grandchildren were going through touched me to the core. Until then, no one had suggested hospice. Perhaps they sensed, correctly, that I’d resist. This young nurse, however, opened my eyes, making me finally concede that this was Larry’s life, not mine; the choice was his to make.

The following morning, as Larry was being discharged, Michael appeared again. I watched as he gently and respectfully helped Larry dress and get into the wheelchair. He grabbed warm blankets, tucking one around his shoulders and another over his legs. When we got to the car, he carefully helped Larry into the passenger seat before saying, “Wait a moment; I’ll be right back.” He returned with two pillows, one he expertly placed behind Larry’s back, and the other behind his legs. He wished us luck as he waved goodbye.

For the first time in my life, I realized that nursing was as much about communication as about physical care. Because of Michael, we had two precious, quality-filled months with Larry before he peacefully left us.

Nurses heal by offering care… and sometimes by modifying it.

~Connie Kaseweter Pullen

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