There are few experiences in life to prepare one for the end of it. There are books written about the end of life, near-death experiences, and caregiving experiences. Collections of prayers, stories, memories, poetry, and songs expose only a small fragment of the authors’ personal journey. As time unfolds into memories, each one of us must face our own personal end of life journey.
In my youth, fear and fascination merged with respect and I chose to delve into learning more about death and the many ways in which it can occur. In college, I wrote a letter to Death. In life, I have become a companion to death’s reality. In my hospice nursing experiences, I have encountered every facet of the end of life experience. Some patients have approached their journey with a brave smile, a stoic nature and an undeniable devotion to their family and their faith. Others have chosen a path of denying the inevitable until the very end. Still others have embraced the love that surrounded them and squeezed every last ounce of happiness and joy with loved ones while taking their last breaths.
I have had the honor of sitting with patients and families amid these final moments. Witnessing the bonds of loving relationships, knowing that peace has been made, and realizing that love endures, had lessened my fears about dying. But the tide changed several summers ago when my own mortality came into clear focus.
I had a strange, soft lump on the side of my neck, just below the clavicle. My doctor ordered an ultrasound of the neck to see if it was of suspicion. Unfortunately, the test showed a “spot” on my lung. Now it was my turn to wear that brave smile. My doctor’s plan was a simple one. Start a Z-pack that day on case the spot is a simple infection from my frequent bouts of bronchitis and re-run the Ultrasound in three months. If the spot is still there at that time, or larger, then a biopsy will be done. Until then … we wait. And we wonder. The waiting and not knowing was weighing heavily on me and my then-girlfriend (now wife). We tried to be brave and positive for each other. But I knew that I would not do chemo or radiation if the diagnosis was cancer. And I shared my choices with Cindy. Although that was difficult for her to hear, I needed to share it and she needed to know it … just in case. We spent a long three months waiting for the next test which, per my insurance coverage, was to repeat the ultrasound.
For reasons that are no longer clear, we kept this news and vigil pretty much to ourselves. I guess we did it so as not to worry our family and friends needlessly. But looking back, we may have missed an opportunity to let those who love us (and whom we love) share a very emotional time with us. When the time finally came to have the second test, the ultrasound did not even include the region of the first “spot” as it was ordered! After at least six months since I had initially observed the lump, I was referred directly to the Oncology Surgery department. The visit was to discuss the outcome of an ordered PET/CT Scan and the options of wedge-resection biopsy or lobectomy and other treatments.
Fortunately, the PET/CT showed no lump, lesion or any signs of cancer. I was given another chance to make a difference or have an impact. Having this very personal experience – facing a possible terminal diagnosis – gave me a more empathic, compassionate approach to my nursing style and strengthened my personal relationships.
At Caring Choices, we can help you have these difficult conversations, even during emotionally challenging times.
© 2013 Caring Choices