—By Cara Smelcer, LPN
In nursing school hospice was something I thought for sure I would never want to do. Shortly after graduation I found myself in an unsettling situation at the bedside of my terminally ill grandmother. She was more like a mother to me than a grandmother, and I could not believe that she could really be dying.
Nursing school teaches you all about saving lives; what medications to give, life-sustaining measures, CPR and other resuscitation techniques, but what they don’t teach you is how to let someone go. The thought of her not being around to meet my children, to see me finish growing up, or to just be there to talk to was a feeling that paralyzed me.
Growing up, I remember my grandmother’s room as having a warm feel to it. There was always sunshine pouring in through the windows, a smell of rose scented potpourri air, walls of pastel yellow filled with beautiful oil paintings of the farm she and my grandfather lived on. Sitting here this time felt much different than any feeling I had ever experienced in this room. It was not full of sunshine; it was dark with only a small lamp next to the bed that projected a dim beam of light across her face. There were no sounds of laughter or telling of stories, just the sound of the oxygen machine humming in the background and the occasional sniffle of a family member. This woman lying in this bed did not look like the same radiant beauty with silver curly hair and rosy cheeks I had just visited last week. She looked very small lying in that bed, her beautiful curly hair flattened and her face sunken in and pale.
Not knowing what I should say, what I should do or more importantly how I could help her, gave me the feeling of defeat at this impending situation. I took a seat next to her, found her hand tucked in the blankets next to her, and just held it. Her hand was cold to the touch; this hand felt different somehow than the one that has been holding mine for the last 20 years. We sat in silence for what seemed like hours until I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to find a young woman dressed in scrubs and a white lab coat, stethoscope draped around her neck, and she was carrying a bag and a clipboard. There was a sense of relief seeing another nurse there, but also a disappointment too; why was she not trying to do something else to help my grandma?
Words failed me in the midst of my emotions; thankfully she took over and said in a very soft and kind voice, “You must be Cara. My name is “Amanda”, and I am your grandma’s hospice nurse. She speaks of you often; about how proud she is of you. You sitting here with her and holding her hand is the best thing you can do for her right now.” Relief set in as I didn’t have to explain who I was or ask another nurse what I should be doing. “Amanda” took a seat next to me, and she began to pray with us and tell us the stories my grandma had shared with her.
Something happened in those next few moments and days that would change me for the rest of my life; I learned how to let someone go. My grandma took her last breath holding my grandpa’s hand, in that dimly lit room surrounded with people who loved her. It was in this moment I finally knew what I was supposed to do and who I was supposed to be. I now find myself walking into the room of my patient taking his last breaths. I now understand that I can help him by making him comfortable, and I can provide a sense of peace to his family.
I am the one now walking up to his wife, children, and grandchildren initiating the conversation to relay the stories he has shared with me during the past several months and reassuring them of the love he has for them. In doing this, I am able to consistently reassure myself that my grandma is watching over me and that she is proud of me. I have learned how to care for others when they can no longer be fixed with aggressive treatments or medications, and have discovered that holding someone’s hand or crying with a family member can be very powerful medicine too.