Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Difficult Death

All of the nurses on the floor thought Mr. Halibut was incredibly difficult. They complained that he was always on the call light and that he was very moody. At times, he seemed to have some sort of mental breakdown, during which he became somewhat confused.

I was still a nursing student, and as is customary, the nurses on the floor tossed the least desirable patient in the student's direction. Fortunately, as it was my second quarter of clinicals, I was only expected to take on one patient at a time.

The doctors had decided that Mr. Halibut's leukemia had recurred one too many times. They had no other treatment options to offer him. He was going to die. Mr. Halibut had been in the hospital for two days now and had not yet fully comprehend that this was the conclusion that the doctors had come to. I don’t think he was ready to hear this news.

I started the first day off by answering his call light immediately. Then I dropped in every couple of hours "just to check in." The nurses on the floor were impressed (and relieved) that he hadn't been using his call light as often.

I gave him full control. He wanted help getting his slippers on? I got on the floor to make sure there weren't any pebbles on the bottom of his feet before sliding the shoe on. (The chemo had made his feet go numb and thus put him at risk for developing sores or blisters because he couldn't feel what was in his shoe).

"Why are you being so nice to me?" He asked me. "I must be really sick to be getting this much attention, huh?" So, okay, I may have been a little too attentive and accommodating as a nursing student.

I laughed gently, "No." I explained, "I'm a nursing student, so you're my only patient, so I don't have that much I need to do. I thought I might as well hang out in here with you." Both Mr. Halibut and I knew that was only half the truth.

The next day, we went for a walk in the hallway together. He initiated a conversation about his life. I encouraged it by asking him all sorts of questions. After reviewing his life that afternoon, he started to withdraw and became increasingly depressed. The reality of his failing health was finally sinking in.

A week later, he was sent home for home hospice (a nurse, home health attendant, social worker and chaplain would visit him regularly at home). I knew he still had a lot of work to do before he would be ready to let go of this life. It had been such an honor for me to be present with him as he began this process. Saying goodbye to him in the hallway, as he sat in his wheelchair with his belongings loaded up on the arm rests, I knew I would never see him again. Tears came to the rims of my eyes as I told him how much it had meant to me to work with him. Both he and his wife returned my goodbye with warm, sad smiles. He died about a month later in his home.

After having such a rewarding experience with Mr. Halibut, I sought out the "difficult patients" more and more. Thank you, Mr. Halibut! You were an inspiration. I hope you are resting in peace.

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