I work at the Wilmot Cancer Center at Strong Memorial Hospital on a surgical oncology floor. I see everyone from patients who are newly diagnosed with cancer to those who are approaching the end of their journey. Quite often people ask me how I can stand being an oncology nurse. How do I deal with all the suffering I see? Isn’t it depressing? My reply is that it’s not about me; it is about the patients — but then again, that’s not entirely true. I admit I’m getting something out of it as well.
As a nurse, I have a unique opportunity to work in the realm where medicine and human compassion meet, to share moments with people that no one else can share. Every day I strive to see my patients beyond their sickness. I try to learn who they are, what has brought them joy in their lives, and what defines them as a person.
Coping with cancer — or any life-threatening illness — is hard enough. The fear of death is obvious, but there are countless other concerns on the minds of those suffering. I hug my patients, hold their hands, and take the time to make eye contact with them as often as possible; I want to care for them. I try meeting my patients where they are in their battle with cancer — emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually.
Each patient is different, but I do my best to come alongside them and show them that they are so much more than their disease, that I see them as a person, and that I hope to ease their burden in some way. I encounter a lot of embarrassment and shame in my patients, often spoken through tears, at being so dependent upon others especially after such major surgeries when they have vomited/bled/defecated/etc., and I tell them that I choose to be where I am, and I understand that they did not. I reassure them that I love my job, and that it is my pleasure to help them. I strive with each interaction to give my patients as much dignity as possible through their hospital stay.
I am thrilled that we have success story after success story here at Wilmot, but unfortunately that is not always the case. I have watched patients die, comforted families that have lost a loved one, and talked with patients and families as they cope with the realities of pending death. I have seen patients who are actively dying decide to meet death with dignity and even joy over having lived a meaningful life. The importance of this cannot be understated: At the end, when all else is stripped away, I have found that those in this situation fare best when they do not reflect on their lives based on some misguided definition of “success” or “what could have been,” but rather when they recognize that the most meaningful things in life are truly basic — communication, human touch, compassion, and smiles — right up to the end.
I am honored that I get to share those moments with them.
I am not unique. Nurses do this and more all the time, and not for praise or recognition. We do it simply because that is the heart of a nurse. We know that a patient is far more than the pathophysiology presented to the medical community. That’s where nurses excel, bridging the gap between medical science and humanity — beautifully!