Posted by Grimalkin, RN
When I was 23, my grandmother was dying of lung cancer.
My Grandma H was one of the strongest women I ever knew. She ran her own business, was an active church member and helped found my home church in Missouri.
But she smoked. She and my grandfather smoked for decades. Everyone did.
Then my grandfather got cancer and she quit cold turkey. She still got cancer.
This woman also got Type 2 diabetes and changed her diet overnight.
My grandmother wasn’t perfect. She had a temper, she was set in her ways, and she was, at least, at one point, a racist. She kept her racism well hidden, and I only ever heard a racist comment from her shortly before her death when she was having a lot of problems. I don’t want to think of my grandmother as a racist, but I know it was there at some point. Still, she welcomed her black customers and was well thought of by the black community in my hometown, as I learned after her death. I’ll never know her true stance because my grandmother never taught me to be a racist. She kept her opinions to herself.
I was visiting my grandmother and she was in the hospital. She was dying of lung cancer and COPD. I was staying at my Grandma C’s house. It was quickly obvious that my grandma was dying, and I needed to be there as much as I could. My job at Charles Schwab refused to let me take time off, but I was fortunate to have a standing job offer from a previous employer. So I quit. I’ll never invest with Schwab. They claimed to be a family friendly company and refused me time off with the woman who practically raised me.
At this time I was also trying to decide which college to attend, and what to major in. I wanted a guaranteed job, I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted a living wage. I loved science, and was toying with the idea of being a nurse. I was currently working in customer service and tech support and hated it.
I was at my Grandma C’s house, in my pajamas, and got a call from the hospital. My grandmother was actively dying. I raced to the hospital to find my grandmother pale, her fingers blue, and barely coherent. No one was in the room with her. She begged me for help. I quickly tried to call for help and was told by the nurse “She’s dying.” My grandmother was in agony. I’d only seen her close to that once before, when she’d forgotten to turn her oxygen on. She was not being medicated for her shortness of breath or anxiety. She was literally sitting in a chair, gasping to stay alive. Yes, she was a DNR. This was my first lesson that some medical professionals consider that to be an order not to treat the patient.
In tech support, one of the first questions we always asked was “is it plugged in?” My grandmother’s oxygen was not plugged into the wall.
I called the nurse’s station again, desperate. No one came. I walked out to the nurse’s station to find the nurses sitting down and talking. I quickly asked for help to plug my grandmother’s oxygen back in.
A nurse marched down the hall with me, plugged the oxygen in the wall and said:
“You could have done this YOURSELF.”
Within minutes, my grandmother had her color back. She had her breath back, and she was thinking more clearly, although she never regained her sharpness of wit or memory after that moment.
As I sat there, holding her hand, feeling her desperately rubbing her thumb over mine, which she did to comfort me, but also to comfort her, I thought of that nurse, and I thought: “If that moron can do it, I can do it.”
I filed a complaint with the hospital and received an apology. I was reminded very shortly that my grandmother was dying. I didn’t really think of suing the hospital because I knew she was dying and I had already had a horrible experience with a false medical lawsuit filed by my mother. Litigation was the last thing on my mind. If that had happened today, I would raised hell. But back then, I was 23. I had no idea of a patient’s rights. I was alone in the hospital.
Nursing school was brutal. I worked full time through the entire thing, sometimes just sleeping 2-3 hours a day between classes and on breaks at work. I haven’t gotten to work in pediatrics. I work in surgery.
Every time I go into a patient’s room, from my first day as a tech and until the day I leave nursing, I check the patient’s color, respiration, effort, and whether or not their oxygen is plugged in. If they are on a tank, I bend over and check, every time. I’ve found other nurse’s patients with their oxygen off, cyanotic (blue), and averted a code. I monitor my medicated patients closely.
I’m not a perfect nurse. I screw up. I lack patience at times. I have compassion fatigue and I’m burned out from working a hard, physical job while coping with chronic illness and pain.
But when I had a dying patient, the other nurses covered my patients completely so I could stay with her. I held her hand and turned her toward the mountains, so that if she could see, the last thing she would see was beauty. When I talked to her son who was rushing to her side, I was able to truthfully tell him his mother did not die alone.
I have never told a family member to do anything by themselves. I will never treat a family member like they should have medical training. If my patient is in distress, I am in the room.
That nurse is probably still working. I never got her name. Her inaction made me a better nurse. I will never, ever, let myself become so fatigued, so burned out that I knowingly let a patient suffer while I sit at the station, talking. It’s just not the kind of nurse I’m ever going to be.