I have been a hospice nurse for 5 years. I have been treading water in an ocean of grief that is compiled of the collective tears of my community. In my relatively short time as a hospice nurse, I feel like I have seen enough suffering, pain, and sadness to put to shame any fictional work that has ever come out of Hollywood or been written by the greatest of authors. If art imitates life, it’s failing miserably and can’t hold a candle to what I have seen play out, from the most complex to the beautifully mundane.
I’m now at a point where my identity as a hospice nurse has overshadowed my previous identity as a U.S. Marine. With each patient that I connect with and work towards getting comfortable, there is a change that occurs within me. It draws my heart closer into this field, even as my mind tells me sometimes that I can’t take much more of this.
One thing that I retain from my military days is a fighting mentality, and that I believe is of absolute necessity. I was never deployed to a combat zone, so I won’t claim to have any knowledge on the matter, but I believe that hospice nurses are “at war” when we don our scrubs and tend to our patient’s needs. I use that terminology in this context in the same way our government does when talking about the “war on drugs” or the “war on cancer.” I certainly don’t intend to diminish the sacrifices that my brethren make on the battlefield when I say this. I do believe we are fighting though, and must have the resolve and tenacity of a fighter when we advocate and care for our patients.
I recently had this mental image of fighting as I was showering for work. Having worked the previous day and been drained, I knew I was in store for another long 12 hours. I realized that I better muster the energy and will to fight my patient’s pain, dyspnea, anxieties, and fears. I not only am fighting those symptoms though, I’m also fighting against misperceived notions of what hospice entails, and I’m fighting against my own compassion fatigue. Every shift is a battle.
The unfortunate thing is, even if I do an exceptional job with symptom management, provide holistic care, and meet all the needs of the patient and family, at the end of the day—a wife lost her husband, a son lost his mother, a family suddenly was thrust into one of the worst days of their life and I was part of it. It feels hard to go home and tell myself that I won the battle when their loved one just lost theirs.
Some time back, I was asked to speak among my healthcare community about why I like working at hospice. I shared a quote that I felt helped to shed just a little light into the why.
“We enjoy warmth because we have been cold.
We appreciate light because we have been in the darkness.
By the same token, we can experience joy because we have known sorrow.”
— David L. Weatherford
I have seen many moments that I have termed “beauty in the sadness,” and I believe, or at least hope, that those loved ones who are left behind when my patients pass on will reflect on the moments of beauty and joy amongst all that sorrow as I know I have. The battle continues.
Jon Templeman is a staff nurse at Our Hospice of South Central Indiana Inpatient Facility in Columbus, Indiana.