Issues regarding spirituality are part and parcel of working with oncology patients. For many, their faith brings them comfort; for others, a serious illness can cause a crisis in deeply held beliefs. It can take nerves of steel to cross this minefield, and not every nurse feels comfortable dealing with spiritual issues. I have to admit that I am one of those nurses, but an experience with a patient several years ago showed me how addressing a crisis in faith can bring the sort of comfort that no pain medication can equal.
When I was a hospice nurse, I had a patient named Paul who was a very devout Conservative Mennonite. One day, I went to see him, and I immediately sensed he was not his usual self. He didn't respond to any of my gentle joking. He wouldn't even make eye contact with me. After several minutes of unsuccessful attempts to find out what was going on, his wife asked me to follow her into the kitchen. "I want to talk to you about his pain medicine," she said.
We went into the kitchen, and she said to me, "I don't want to talk to you about his medicine. I need to tell you what happened last Sunday." She told tell me their bishop had been there to see Paul, and during the visit, the bishop told him the reason his cancer was spreading was because he wasn't praying the right way.
"I don't know how to help him," she said.
This was one of those moments that made me wish the chaplain would ride along with me for visits. This patient was clearly in spiritual distress, and it needed to be handled right then and there. Normally, I never delve into issues regarding religion or politics, but this was a time when I had to do something to ease my patient's suffering.
I excused myself and went out to my car to get the Bible I had left there from a recent church meeting. I came back in the house and asked the patient if he wanted me to share a few scripture verses with him. He agreed, and I read a few verses that I thought would comfort him and put his mind at ease. After we finished reading, I asked him if he wanted me to say a prayer. He accepted my offer, and I said a brief prayer that I thought would accommodate his beliefs. When I gathered my things to leave, he looked like he was at peace. His wife stopped me as I went to leave and gave me a hug, saying, "You said things better than our bishop ever did."
I make no claim to having any sort of ecclesiastical gifts. To be honest, I felt like I was winging it as I spoke to him. What I did know was that, at that moment, my reserve when it comes to speaking about religion was not as important as being willing to do whatever I had to do to help my patient.
This experience reminded me that, as nurses, we need to remember that our talents do not lie solely with the technical aspects of our work, and there are times our patients need our other gifts from us the most.