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Nurses Week seems the appropriate time to tell you this story. It involves "being there" for families, especially when comfort measures are all anyone can offer a dying patient.
Having worked for years in critical care, I know well what "severe" and "herniation" mean when used to describe brain damage. Yet when the neurologist used these terms to explain my mother's condition, my knowledge evaporated and the words didn't penetrate.
Mom lingered for 5 days after her stroke last October, and I made treatment decisions for her. Over the years she'd told me many times that she didn't want extreme measures if her hope of recovery was slim, and the family had agreed that I should make decisions for Mom and Dad when the time came. What never dawned on me was that having this role in a crisis calls for clear thinking. My emotional involvement made that impossible. At first, I was in total denial: That was my mom in the bed, not someone ready to die.
Wisely, the nurses didn't assume I could absorb the seriousness of my mother's condition just because I'm a nurse. As I asked them the same questions over and over, again and again they answered me patiently. They respected my grief and my inability to make quick decisions, and knew that I too needed their help.
Step by painful step, I was able to make decisions for Mom. Before we knew the severity of her condition: Okay, insert a small-bore feeding tube. When we knew the outlook was hopeless:No-please don't intubate her.
I don't know how I'd have gotten through those 5 days without the nurses quietly helping me understand what I couldn't grasp on my own. But they did more than answer my questions and educate me about Mom's condition. They also did what they could to ease my own pain. When they'd come in to reposition her or administer I.V. fluids, they'd ask me questions about "Charlotte" as she'd been before the stroke. Talking about her during happy times comforted me as much as their hands-on care comforted her.
Physicians may stop and relate the bad news about the patient, then move on. Helping the family through the difficult time that follows, hour by hour and day by day, is what nurses do. Simply "being there" may seem minor to you-until the day you find yourself on the receiving end.
Never doubt the impact you have on patients and families. Your caring can truly be extraordinary.
Happy Nurses Week.
Cheryl L. Mee, RN,BC, CMSRN, MSN
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