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Cancer patient provides life lesson to RN

Monday April 8, 2013
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I know I am not the only nurse who has trudged to the car two hours past shift change, feeling dirty and unappreciated and wondering why in the world he or she chose this job. It seems that as time goes by and you become more knowledgeable and efficient, remaining compassionate and connected becomes more difficult. But it always seems to be those days when I feel most disconnected, distracted or exhausted that I witness a moment of grace so powerful that I remember why being a nurse is as much a gift as it is a job.

I recently cared for a 77-year-old male patient whom I will call Mr. Stone. He had been diagnosed with bladder cancer about a month before arriving in our surgical ICU. The surgeon had determined the bladder tumor was so invasive and extensive that Mr. Stone would need a radical cystectomy. He was sent home to recuperate from the initial surgery, participate in physical therapy and improve his nutritional status prior to the cystectomy. Once he was home, however, the bladder tumor began to impede his ability to urinate, and he went into acute renal failure. He was transferred back to our hospital. He underwent several rounds of dialysis, and his surgeon placed bilateral nephrostomy tubes to drain his urine before it reached his bladder.

When I met Mr. Stone, he was close to being transferred out of our ICU to the regular floor. I knew that the most important thing I’d be doing for him would be to get him out of bed, walk him in our hallways and make sure he was eating his meals and nutritional supplements. But Mr. Stone was tired, in pain and had no appetite. He was having frequent, painful bladder spasms, and he had a constant leakage of a foul-smelling drainage. I could tell it was an embarrassment to him, but much more than that, a distressing reminder of the "wrong" thing that was inside of him, causing him so much pain. And yet, each time I went in to help him walk to the chair for a meal, he nodded yes and started to move.

Only once in the two days I cared for him did Mr. Stone voice any complaint. After I moved him from the commode to the bed during a bladder spasm, he exhaled and said quietly under his breath, "This cancer is killing me." I sensed for a moment the weight of what Mr. Stone was enduring. It was not only the physical suffering, but the possibility that the cancer would end his life, surgery or not.

I could tell Mr. Stone was a great man because he had a steady stream of children and stepchildren visiting. I learned Mr. Stone’s wife, so distressed by his hospitalization, had suffered a flare-up of her own illness and been admitted to the floor above us. Their children shuttled between the two rooms, reporting to Mr. Stone on his wife’s condition and vice versa. He seemed very concerned.

In the afternoon of my second day caring for Mr. Stone, a bed became available for him on a regular floor. It dawned on me that Mr. Stone’s wife was on a different wing of the same floor. The transporter helped me locate Mrs. Stone’s room. We gently knocked on the door, pushed Mr. Stone in and moved him up to the bed.

Mr. and Mrs. Stone embraced, both crying, and whispered to each other while all looked on. The transporter, tears in his eyes, handed me Mr. Stone’s things and said gruffly, "I have to step out for a minute." There was not a dry eye in the room. It felt like they were starting to say goodbye.

Sometimes, the patients we care for are so battered and torn, they are stripped of everything except the very things that make them human. We nurses are in the trenches, tending to their broken bodies and helping to ease the pain. Removed from their homes, their jobs, even their own clothes, we see people for who they really are.

I spent less than 24 hours with Mr. Stone, but when I hugged him goodbye I felt I knew him better than some people I have known for years. He was a good man who loved his family above all, and who reminded me that the greatest gift in my job is witnessing over and over again that love is the most important thing. •


Anna Reda, RN, BSN, BA, is a staff nurse in the surgical trauma ICU at Tampa (Fla.) General Hospital.Write to editor@nurse.com or post a comment below.