What It's Like to Be a Hospice Nurse

Snapshots of life at home.
June 19 2013 5:30 AM

Approaching Death

A nurse goes from the ER to a hospice, and changes the way she thinks about life and its end.

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Thirty minutes after I got the page, I drove up a bumpy dirt road to a little green house on the side of a mountain. The neighborhood was quiet, private, and filled with golden aspens changing colors for the season. The door opened before I knocked. The father’s eyes were teary, and his parchment skin looked drained and hollow. He led me silently through a hallway, one entire wall of which was covered with books—perhaps the ones they had hoped their son would read. The mother was sitting in a rocking chair, holding her seizing infant. “It hasn’t stopped for twelve minutes.”

All I could do for him, for them, was be calm and present as this tiny creature worked his way toward the end we all come to. My heart broke for them, but I stood by and fought the urge to rush in. I couldn’t intrude on this precious process. I waited with them, moving only to help with positioning or to offer gentle suggestions. In the air, I felt his tiny presence slip away, slowly and peacefully. He stopped moving, his breathing slowed until it was imperceptible, and for a moment his complete stillness made me hold my own breath. I reached for the pediatric stethoscope around my neck, warming it in my hand so as not to startle him. As I pressed it against his chest, his mother said, “His name is Christopher.”

“Hi, Christopher,” I whispered as I listened.

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I didn’t need to say the words. I knew from her expression that she knew. A slow, fat tear dripped down her face, and I backed away, just far enough out of the picture, in my attempt not to invade this moment of goodbye between the three of them. There was nothing for me to do but be still. I crept back, found a chair, and sat to wait.

And then I began to sob.

I felt myself losing control, choking and sobbing as if he were my child, my loss. I didn’t even have children. I tried not to make noise, tried not to trespass on their moment. I was so ashamed! I was supposed to be their support, their rock. I moved to quietly slip out of the room, but I felt the husband’s hand on my shoulder. His eyes were wet and kind. He handed me a tissue.

I couldn’t believe what a failure I was.

I got it together, finally, and helped them decide what to do. I called the physician, the coroner, and the mortuary. At the mother’s request, I got permission from the mortuary for the couple to drive the tiny body themselves. I helped them into the car by holding the baby, who now had a little blue cap on his head, while his mother settled herself in the passenger’s seat. I placed Christopher on her lap, hoping they wouldn’t get pulled over and have to explain why their baby was not in a car seat.

I was watching them ease down the driveway when the car suddenly stopped. The mother gently handed her little bundle over to her husband and got out of the car. Before I could react, she’d wrapped her arms around me. I was so stunned by the gentle, intimate comfort she offered that I barely moved. She finally let me go, looked at me, then got back into the car. They drove off. As I watched them go, I wondered if maybe I hadn’t failed. I hadn’t swallowed my grief. I hadn’t patronized them or tried to explain “the process.” I had been absolutely present with them in that agonizing, priceless moment. It was the best I could do.

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This essay originally appeared in I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse, a collection edited by Lee Gutkind, out now from In Fact Books.

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