Hi friends! Today I’m broaching a more serious topic and giving you a peak into the life of an oncology nurse. The unit I work on is an oncology/hematology/bone marrow transplant/and palliative care unit.
It has been a long time since I’ve done a blog about my job. But, since it is a big part of my life + the nursing profession has received A LOT of recent attention (cough Joy Behar) I thought it was the perfect time to add this post.
A while back I had my co-workers on my blog to talk about the challenges that brand new nurses face. You can find it here. Today, I wanted to specifically talk about oncology nursing and caring for people as they die.. Often people say, how do you do that? I could never handle that when I’m asked about my job. Even the pastor in my life group made that remark to me– it is heavy. They know that I take care of very sick patients, and also care for people as they die.
In America, death is often a topic that is avoided. But as another pastor reminds us “the death rate is hovering right around 100%”. We’ll all face it sometime and maybe that thought makes you very uncomfortable. Before this job, I have to say I didn’t think about my mortality quite as often. And now, I think about it a lot. Not that I’m consumed by it, but it has made me feel even more thankful for every day the Lord gives me down here and I’ve grown in my own faith during the process of caring for others during their death.
It is a privilege to take care of people and support them through this very important time in their life. We are also there to take care of and comfort the families, helping them understand the process and the changes they might see physically happening to their loved one. The reality is, this can be very hard. Sometimes we have built longstanding relationships with the patient and families, and the goal of care only recently transitioned to a comfort approach.
I asked some of the same nurses to contribute to this article as well. I introduced them in the last article, so go here to learn more about these awesome nurses. Here is what they had to say:
We see so many people die on our floor. How has it changed your view of life + death?
Ali: I have learned that death does not always equate to “horrible.” When most people think of death (at least from what I have gathered from talking to non-B6/6 peers), they think of pain and terrible sadness. I have learned from my job that that this is not always the case—especially with our palliative patients. Death can be without physical pain and in a way, freeing. I will always remember one of my first patients that passed: she had been fighting for her life with aggressive treatments for months, but once she, her family and doctors agreed that a palliative route was best, I saw a change in her and her family. She was finally at peace, calmer, and her family was able to come and say to her, “we love you and it is OK for you to go.” It was extremely powerful for me to hear these words. Of course they were sad to lose their loved-one, but it was a very beautiful way to pass and allowed her family to have a healthy sense of closure. I can think of numerous similar stories to this one! So, to answer your question in a nutshell: my view of death has changed tremendously. It’s hard for most to accept, but it is absolutely possible for death to be comfortable, tolerable and freeing.
Kaitlin: Growing up, I was absolutely terrified of death and I would lose sleep over it. I just couldn’t comprehend the finality of it. However, being an oncology and palliative care nurse has changed the way I look at life AND death. I no longer fear death and I no longer lose sleep over it. I have come to terms with the fact that no one is immortal and that we will all one day have to stare death in the face. Rather than praying that my loved ones live forever, I now pray for peaceful experiences. I frequently take care of people who are at different stages of the dying process. From those who have just learned that they have weeks to months to live to those who have just taken their last breath. I learn something new from every patient that I am fortunate enough to take care of. The most valuable lesson that I’ve learned from my patients (as cliche as it sounds), is to live life to its fullest and to make the most of each and every day- travel while you can, let people know how you feel about them, say “I love you”, etc. I have also learned just how important it is to have conversations with both my patients and my own family members about their wishes and how they want the end of their life to go. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. Although death is never easy to deal with, it is often much less stressful for the dying and their family if they’ve had the opportunity to have this important conversation. Although I deal with death on a daily basis, it is not something that I will ever fully get used to. I am so thankful for everything that this job has taught me and it truly is an honor and a privilege to do what I do.
Amy: It really makes you appreciate how precious life and your health is. It also makes you realize that quality of life is more important than quantity. We see so many people who struggle and suffer in their final days, and it makes you evaluate how you would choose to spend your final days if you know you were dying. Easier said than done, but I try to live each day as if it were my last and really value my family and my health.
How do you find balance between taking care of other people at work + taking care of yourself at work + away from work?
Amy: Know your limits and know what you are capable of. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed at work, take a short break to care for yourself. You are of no use to your patients and co-workers if you don’t care for yourself. Don’t forget to eat and drink, especially during a longer 12 hour shift. I always have co-workers saying to met they don’t drink enough fluids or didn’t get a lunch that day. Don’t get into the habit! Even on my busiest days I will always try to pop back into the break room and quick gulp some water and eat a quick snack. As nurses, we are going to have days when we hardly have time to pee, let alone eat lunch. I always keep a few easy, quick snacks in my locker for those days. I’m a better critical thinker, multi-tasker and much more patient when I’m not starving. When I am not at work, I try my best to not think about work. We get a lot of caregiver fatigue in our line of work and need to remember to take care of ourselves too. Eat right and exercise, do something for yourself, go out to a nice dinner, or see a movie. Surround yourself with family and good friends, as I said before, being so close to life and death at work makes us realize what is most important in life. I really have learned to value my loved ones and learned to do what makes me happy in my time away from work. That is the best way to find balance.
Indeed, it is a tough but rewarding job. I think it is safe to say we all realize to value our health and it has changed our perspectives of death.