In the interview of Heather Rice begun in the previous post we zoomed in on the question she, as an oncology nurse, is most frequently asked about her work. “How do you stick with it when so many of your patients suffer chronic pain and die?” She related that the truths gleaned from John 11 have shaped her attitude. Following is the completion of that interview.
What other Scripture passages have you found helpful?
Ecclesiastes 3:1 and 4, “There is an appointed time for everything . . . A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” When I worked on the oncology floor of a hospital, sometimes I was moving back and forth between the room of a dying patient and the room of one having a party with friends. Laughter in one room, tears in another–for me it was emotional whiplash. I was tempted to feel like a hypocrite. How could I laugh on the outside with sadness still in my heart from the previous room? I could have depersonalized into cold efficiency, but that is not the Bible’s answer. Instead, I could choose to be genuinely happy with one and genuinely sorrowful with the other. Yes, I still felt residual sorrow when I moved from the dying patient’s room to the festive room, but I considered this was due to “lag-time” in my feelings, not a discredit to the authenticity of my choice to laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep.
The emotional drain must sometimes be exhausting. I would think the sadness over particular cases might continue into after-work hours, too. How do you handle that?
Yes, it is draining. That is when knowing I have Jesus who feels the sorrow with me is great comfort. Looking back, I see that some of the sweetest times were when, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually exhausted, I would just come to God and without a murmur or question just rest on Him.
As for handling the sorrow after work, I don’t think I have had much problem with that. It is not that I never think of my patients after going home, but that thinking of them has often turned to prayer. The majority of my patients are not believers, so considering their situation–that death is nearing and they aren’t spiritually prepared–has spurred me to intense prayer for them. And it is there, in God’s hands, that I leave them because He’s sovereign.
Have you ever been present when a patient dies?
I have never been there at the moment of death, which surprises me considering how many patients I cared for who were actively dying. However, when I worked in the hospital, I was the one who was responsible to “call” the death for the patient under my care on my shift. That means I would listen to the patient’s chest for a full minute for a heartbeat, confirm death to the family members and then record the precise time I determined death. Then, after the family had spent what time they needed to say good-bye, I was responsible to remove all items from the body and put it in the bag ready for transport to the mortuary. I was the one who would zip the body bag closed at last.
Caring for the dying and dead seemed repulsive to me until I realized something very comforting. Have you ever wondered what you would do if you lived during the time of Jesus? What funding you would give Him, opening your home, providing meals and clothes, etc.? I have often wondered. I was not there to be with Him at the cross. But, if I treated my patients as if they were Christ, it was a way to serve Him. I may not have been there to soothe Jesus’ cracked lips when he hung on the cross, but I can apply balm to my patient’s lips. I may not have been able to care for Christ’s body when taken down from the cross, but I can care for my patient’s body.
Some months ago you mentioned to me another application you’ve made of that attitude, that of gentleness even in how you touch your patients, like the way in which you touch them when giving an injection.
Do you have any other thoughts on what keeps you in this field of work that some people avoid due to discouragement over the rate of death among patients you, to a degree, get to know on a personal level?
If the only goal of my care is to cure the patient, it would indeed be very discouraging. But I want more than a physical cure.
More and more, I’m falling in love with oncology and with helping the patients, especially the new ones. They are usually so fearful and often angry. For me, it is rewarding to work with them such that by the end of the first appointment they are often relaxed and often smiling. The wife of one of our patients, after her husband’s first treatment, as they were leaving our infusion center, she actually told us, “Wow, this was a pleasant experience!” To me, that was rewarding. We nurses did more than just infuse chemo. It may be hard to believe, but those who think of treatment merely in physical terms miss the relational aspect of my work as a nurse.
People may find oncology discouraging if they are afraid or turned off by the thought of dealing with pain, ugliness and death. I can understand that. For me though, seeing suffering spurs my desire to dive into it because I have such hope in Jesus to give to the patients, such joy and comfort! I suppose God has put this desire in my heart; I’m sure oncology nursing is not everybody’s cup of tea. The darker the room, the brighter a spark of fire seems. Sometimes, the bleaker the situation, the more a simple, caring smile might comfort. I’m really thankful to the Lord for the privilege of serving in the field of oncology.