I was a very young new RN after graduating from nursing school only eight months earlier. I was employed at the Rochester Methodist Hospital next to the Mayo Clinic. One evening while at home, I received a phone from my mother. She told me that George, a gas station owner and church member from my hometown, had been diagnosed with leukemia. He was being treated at my hospital. He and his wife, Connie, would be there today. My mother asked me to pay them a visit and help with the transitions of being in large urban medical center. I knew today would be different. I was gradually realizing that the title “nurse” meant more than a routine job.
As I approached the front desk to get his room number, I felt a sense of eagerness and dread. I was eager to see a familiar face from my hometown, and dreaded knowing that I would have to help deal with George’s terminal illness. Walking down the long corridors toward his room, I reflected back to my early childhood when I first met George and Connie. I remembered them from church. Their two sons were a few years ahead of me in school. Funny, we had only been acquaintances for the past 20 years, but now in this particular time and place, we shared an automatic kinship.
I took a deep breath upon entering his room, I did not know what to expect. I composed myself as my body reacted to the shock of seeing George with bluish-gray skin from poor oxygen exchange. His face was drawn and he was very thin. I looked him deeply in the eyes and smiled a warm greeting as we gave each other a hug. I then sat down at his bedside and asked how he was doing. After a few minutes, we had little to say as we silently colluded in the knowledge that his time was limited. He told me, “Connie has just stepped out to get some lunch. She should be back soon. You will check on her, won’t you?” “Of course.” I responded emphatically. He seemed comforted.
I thought back to all the times I had walked by his gas station on the way to and from school every day from kindergarten through high school. I had always perceived him as a quiet, somewhat serious man, and in my younger years I was even a little afraid of him. Now, at his deathbed, it was I who was expected to be the stronger one. I felt a wave of sorrow and compassion for him.
I excused myself to get back to my unit and told him I would find Connie and let her know that I had visited. I waved good-bye and promised to return the next day.
The following day, I again walked down the long corridor to George’s room. As I turned the corner, I felt something odd. I saw that the curtains to his room were completely closed. As I walked nearer, I knew George had just died. His body was still in the bed. A chill came over me, but I bravely stepped closer and saw his body lying peacefully with stone-like pale, ashen skin. I whispered a gentle “good-bye”. Tears filled my eyes as I turned to perform my final promise.
The nurses at the desk told me to check for Connie in the chapel, so I raced down the hall to find her. Quietly, carefully, I opened the chapel door. In the third pew from the back, I saw Connie on her knees, head bowed. As I approached her, she stood up, turned around and saw me. Her face was filled with sorrow and anguish, but her eyes lit up as she threw her arms around me. “Oh, I am so glad you are here–you are like an angel!” she exclaimed. My heart was heavy yet filled with a deep sense of gratitude for this moment. I was glad to be here, too.
Jill Bormann, RN, PhD, FAAN (visit Jill’s website)