A recent article in The New York Times by Abby Goodnough chronicled a nurse with a terminal illness who contacted her alma mater nursing school and left the following message: "I have cancer," she said after introducing herself, "and I'm wondering if you'll need somebody to do a case study on, a hospice patient."
The nurse, Martha Keochareon, offered herself to instruct nursing students on care of the dying -- her own dying. Ms. Keochareon became a role model for communicating with someone who is terminally ill by encouraging the nursing students to ask anything they wanted. She guided the students in how to ask questions and demonstrate listening and compassion -- giving feedback along the way. They had a close look at symptoms and learned about managing those symptoms as well.
Caring for a dying patient may not be part of one's nursing education. Even though it is a regular event, there may be lack of opportunity in some clinical settings.
When I worked in palliative care, I regularly gave a lecture to the new graduate RNs on care of the dying. I always asked how many had cared for a dying patient in school and the number who raised their hands was always less than half. Who will impact these new nurses? Since most students won't have the opportunity given by Ms. Keochareon, it may be that special patient or a trusted colleague.
I have always had a comfort with caring for and talking with dying patients. I think it goes back to my first patient who taught me a lot. She was a young woman with lung cancer who faced her disease directly and wanted to talk about it, and I wanted to listen. I was a new clinical nurse specialist and had more opportunity to spend time with her and I wanted to be there.
Martha Keochareon's nursing students reported they will never forget the gift she gave them. Do you remember the first person you cared for who was dying? Is there a patient who taught you something special? Was there another nurse who gave you guidance? Is it time to pass on that gift to another?