As a nurse for over 30 years, who continues to “consult” with family and friend and on a volunteer basis, I am a professional caregiver.
But something happened to me midway through my career that really made me question myself.
One of my friends and mentors received a terrible diagnosis: Ovarian cancer. She was 43 and had a husband and three daughters in middle and high school, which really hit me as I had a young daughter myself. As her extended “work family,” three or four of us nurses, sometimes together, sometimes separately, would visit her at home and in the hospital, for visits that lasted anywhere from five minutes to five hours, depending on how she was feeling, what was going on with her treatment and her family's needs.
During these visits, I felt a wide range of emotions: denial, anger, disbelief, sadness, acceptance and everything in between. But I was smart. I was a professional. I knew what she needed. I knew what her family needed. I knew how to help the staff help her and her family. I knew what resources were available to and for everyone.
Despite having this medical and professional nursing knowledge, I also felt scared, inadequate and confused. I was helping to take care of my friend, a person so close to me, she felt like a family member. And that feels very different from caring for a hospital patient who is someone with whom I normally don’t have a close connection or know their family dynamics. However, helping her, I felt paralyzed and like I was a blithering, incompetent idiot. All of a sudden, I felt like I didn't know anything. Everything I knew vaporized and went right out of my head, with my hands feeling like they were stuck in glue. I became almost scared to open my mouth for fear of all my shortcomings and I was also afraid those shortcomings would suddenly become blatantly obvious to my peers, co-workers and supervisors.
Then I remembered what my old pediatrician used to say, "A cobbler's child never wears shoes." I started thinking of similar references - like how the kids of judges and lawyers often appear to get into legal trouble; how the kids of doctors and nurses seem to get sick a lot; and, finally, how often people just can't seem to see the forest for the trees. The fact is that people often just don't recognize and attend to what is most familiar to them. And once I shared those thoughts and feelings with two of my more experienced co-workers, I found out, much to my surprise, that they were feeling just like me! I felt validated again.
Once I talked about, recognized and accepted my feelings about my friend's situation, I instantly became a better nurse. I felt like I could once more competently care for her throughout her illness, treatments and, eventually and sadly, her death, just a couple of weeks after her 45th birthday. I knew my nursing friends and I kept her comfortable and she was able to talk to us about her feelings, fears and wishes for her family after her passing. I hope that being her friend at this time was equally, if not more, important than being one of her nurses.
So as you move forward through your life, I hope you remember that good, open and honest communication - with doctors, nurses, healthcare providers, family, friends and EVERYONE in all instances - is critical to any situation. I wish you all a Happy and Healthy 2019!