When The Patient Ministers To Us

By Seasons | November 30, 2017

I recently had the immense privilege of working with the family of a young woman who was being admitted for a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Just walking into the house was tough, as I have children in that age group. I was very aware of the stress in the room as I found that her parents had been divorced for a long time but had come together to be united in the care of their daughter.

As I spoke with Audra (not her real name) and her parents I was struck with the sadness of a life being cut off before its time had come. It always hard to talk about death with a patient, but this situation was particularly tough for me. As I spoke to them, we developed a rapport and I was able to go through the Advanced Directive and the Share the Story conversations. I watched as the opportunity to speak about the pain and the suffering allowed them all to speak with one another about a topic that was so important.

I make it a point to ask each of my patients about things they may wish to accomplish or do before they pass away.

This is a particularly poignant and painful thing to ask a 35 year old. But I felt the moment was right and asked her…there was a significant silence in the room, with Audra and her parents looking at each other.

Then Audra said “I want to have the most beautiful Christmas I can possibly have – I love Christmas and all the trimmings, the decorations, the gifts, everything!” I had a really hard time not crying when she said this, as it was evident and likely that she would not live to see Christmas.

I encouraged Audra and her parents to celebrate an early Christmas, to gather family and friends, go shopping and make a wonderful meal and share time together. I honestly do not know if they were able to do this. I do know that through my admission questions I asked Audra what she had been involved with before her illness. It turned out that she had had a very hard life for such a young person. Along her tough journey she had discovered she had a talent for art and painting. She and her parents were so excited about this and they showed me a lovely canvas of a hummingbird that Audra had painted in 2013.

They had all been so happy with her discovery of this therapeutic and amazing talent that they had gotten notecards made from the painting. They showed me the cards and I saw that she had not used her real name to sign the painting – she explained that she had developed a pen name, Audra, and that it reflected her artistic side.

After many exhausting hours of in-depth questions about hospice, out program, prognostics, DNR, etc, I gathered up my papers and things and prepared to leave. As I started out the door Audra called out to me and said, “Here, I really want you to have these,” and handed me a set of the beautiful hummingbird cards. I was so touched. I politely murmured that it wasn’t necessary, but she insisted and then I humbly accepted them.

As I got in the car, I was overwhelmed by the fact that a dying patient had seen my pain and had ministered to me in the only way she could.

She gave me a piece of what she had created and was proud of.

Audra passed a few weeks before Thanksgiving and several weeks before her beloved Christmas. I have had a few very sad moments thinking about the loss of such a young person – I cannot help but wonder what it would be like to lose one of my precious children…

But then I remembered her lovely cards, her gift to me, and I realized that she would want me to remember her as an artist that had created beautiful things and had captured moments on canvas for others to enjoy.

And so I pass on to each of you a bit of Audra – perhaps when you see a hummingbird you might think of the girl that loved Christmas and the simple joys it brings. Perhaps, as we gather our families this Christmas/Holiday season we can say a quiet prayer for her family and remember her and the many patients that reach out to us when they see our pain…

About the Author: Chris Schaeffer is an RN and Certified Hospice and Palliative Nurse at Seasons Hospice of Maryland.
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