The best and worst part about being an oncology nurse is that you get to know your patients... too well.
When my parents asked me why I wanted to be an oncology nurse, I told them, ďBecause itís the same people over and over again, so you get to know them. Plus, when theyíre there, itís usually for a week or more at a time.Ē A new leukemic will spend no less than a month with us.
Three years into this profession, I still enjoy getting to know my patients and seeing them time and time again. I usually don't cry when we lose them, because I know it means theyíre in a better place; it means that the patient is no longer suffering.
I tell myself itís OK to care, just donít get attached. Well, I broke my rule recently, and it was hard.
I connected with this particular patient right away. He was an animal lover and a huge fan of my favorite sports team. His kids were health professionals, but he still valued my opinion and took my words to heart.
He was first diagnosed earlier this year. I remember because it was during his 30-day plus stay that our city hosted the Super Bowl, and he was privileged enough to have an opportunity to attend the game. We discussed a furlough for the event, as he was close to discharging to home.
His blood levels were almost back to normal, but not yet. It didnít look like the doctor was going to approve this furlough, but he eventually did. By this time, however, my patient had given his ticket up (told his friend to take someone else); because he knew the once-in-a-lifetime experience was not worth the risk of his own life. We watched the game from his room, which was probably one of the cheapest rooms in the city that night.
This man was admitted intermittently to the hospital over the next several months for his chemotherapy treatment. He was then told he was cured. Cancer free. Words every patient wants to hear.
In November, the cancer and he came back. His head was in a fog. He didnít know what all this meant. How could he relapse so soon? What could we do to help him now? Was it too early to discuss a transplant?
I spent a lot of time with this patient the first night I had him on this admission. I gave him all the educational material we had on our unit about leukemia and bone marrow transplants. I encouraged him to ask for a second opinion if he didnít feel right about what his doctor was telling him (this was something he kept verbalizing to me).
The next night that I worked, I was on the other end of the unit, but was asked to go see him, because he couldnít stop raving about how much he appreciated me and the time I gave him.
On December 7th, I came into work and was told he was coded. Shocked twice. Transferred to ICU. I literally stopped and stood in the middle of the hallway in complete shock and disbelief. He was hoping to leave by the 8th, because he wanted to attend a blood drive and Be the Match registration drive put on by our Indianapolis Colts. Obviously, he was unable to attend.
I went to visit him in the ICU later that day. All the machines and beeps scared me. I didnít know what was going on. Instead, I held vigil with his family and talked about the good times.
I worked again on the 8th and visited him again, twice. I wanted to go again before I left for the night, but I was emotionally drained and couldnít stand crying again.
He left this world on the 9th. I cried every single time I walked out of that ICU room. I still cry when I think about him or talk about him with coworkers. I sent his wife a sympathy card with a note. I will never forget this man, and hope itís a long time before I have this kind of connection again. I will continue to care for my patients. Sit on their beds with them. Hold their hands. But I canít continue to cry.
I often wonder, for those of you with more experience, how do you care but stay detached? How do you stay in this field for so long?