22 July 2007
Norman, Okla., USA

How Will You Cope?

A few years ago near the end of my brother's final illness, an event sensitized me to the issue of physicians and nurses caring for patients and their families without becoming debilitated themselves in the process.  My brother had been in the hospital for about a week with multiple systems failing--congestive heart failure, septicemia, and the list went on and on--when his physician team determined that there was nothing more they could usefully do for him. It was time to transfer him from hospital to hospice.  Reluctantly, my mom and I agreed, and soon my brother was being prepared for transfer to the hospice facility across town. 

Since my brother had been extraordinarily well cared for over the preceding week, I approached two of his nurses as we were leaving the Intensive Care Unit to thank them and ask them to pass along thanks to the other staff who had been very caring and particularly gracious with a sometimes-difficult patient.  A couple of sentences into my statement, I was overcome by emotion and was unable to speak further.  Seeing my plight, one of the nurses stepped forward and gave me a hug whose intensity and duration surprised me a bit.  It was more what I would have expected from my daughter than from someone I had known a few days, even a few days in very difficult circumstances.  I really needed a hug then, and it was very much appreciated, but it set me to wondering how the nurse would be able to doff her stethoscope at the end of the day and go on about her life.  Could she sympathize, even empathize, with a patient's family at the level she obviously did and not be adversely affected?

I don't know the answer to that question, and I certainly don't claim any expertise beyond a bit of insight that comes from being a family member of a terminally ill patient on several occasions.  I bring the issue up because many of my students will face the question, probably sooner rather than later, in their nursing or other health-related careers.  I'll have more to say about this topic in the coming days, though probably it'll be more questions than answers.  Your comments are most assuredly welcomed.