By Madeline Rogowski, BSN, OCN®
As a healthcare provider, I had been warned about getting too close to my patients. They told me that it was unprofessional, it would cloud my judgment, it would lead to emotional burnout, and various other reasons. For my first year as a nurse, I took that advice to heart and kept my emotional distance while still doing my best to provide care to the whole patient. Then one night I met Jeff, and everything changed.
Newly diagnosed, admitted for the initiation of chemotherapy for a rare cancer stemming from his service as a 9/11 responder, Jeff was a young guy with a wife named Val, son named Jack, and, as I would soon come to learn, countless friends who were just as electric as he. That first night, Jeff was not too proud to admit his fears about treatment and uncertainty of the future, asking all kinds of questions whether related to his chemo or the hospital stay or me. I soon came to realize that it was the seemingly mundane conversation that brought him peace of mind.
Before long, I would get to know about his life too; his wife and son became frequent topics of conversation, as did his love of travel, boating, pranks, and, of course, his K-9 partners. To an outsider it would probably appear odd, a 20-something nurse swapping stories with a 50-year-old state trooper and his wife, but Jeff and his family were those kind of people: country music, dogs (specifically Cocker Spaniels), beach trips, hobbies, donuts, barbecue, you name it we talked about it!
Over the years, I would see Jeff get better, return to life, have a setback, and fight it with his typical charisma, humor, and support from family and friends. When he was no longer able to work as a New York State trooper and retirement was unavoidable, Jeff went out with a bang and invited a few of us nurses to his retirement party. Oh boy, what a party it was! And it revealed more stories and sides to this man: watching him dance with Val and Jack was a testament to his genuine love of life and those in it.
Unfortunately, there came a time when Jeff's incredible oncologist was running out of treatment options. Although I had been in the room as a nurse for many a conversation about treatment and the future, it still made me quite uncomfortable: watching this man and his wife absorb what likely is the hardest information anyone can be given and offering anything helpful seemed so out of my abilities. But later Val told me, having nurses there for them was all they needed. Our presence, kindness, and unwavering care gave them strength.
It was then that I realized that being part of Jeff and his family's story solidified in me what it meant to me to be a nurse. It wasn't just my chemo administration skills or knowing when labs or vital signs were off. It was getting to know my patients in every aspect of who they are and connecting with them on a human level, not just a healthcare level. It was learning what was important to my patients and how to help them navigate their cancer journey with those things in mind. It was learning it's okay to cry with patients, to show emotion, to share my own life with them for no reason other than to show them funny dog pictures to get through another hospital stay. Listening to them plan, then reminisce on their family trips to the lake camp, Rome, U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Carolina shores brought me as much as peace and joy as I think it did them.
As Jeff's final days drew near, I was honored to be included among his family and friends to say goodbye at one of his favorite places, their lake camp. He chose how to live out his days and that is one of the greatest lessons I carry with me to this day. I keep that in mind as I care for other patients facing difficult decisions and even as I deal with decisions in my own family. I watched how his wife and son stood by his side, supported his decisions, lived life to the fullest with him, and found peace and acceptance. I, as well as two other nurses, remain close with Val and Jack, and even though they thank us for the care we gave them, I have so much gratitude to them for teaching me how to truly care.
Now, when I enter a room and introduce myself, I often ask the patient, "Tell me something about you that has nothing to do with why you are here," because their diagnosis is only a fraction of who that person is and who I am taking care of.
Editor’s note: This story was submitted as part of the “Storytelling: What Keeps Us Going” session held during the 47th Annual ONS Congress® on April 28, 2022.