Friday, August 13, 2021

My first patient died when I was a student.  I was twenty-three years old and I had never seen a dying person.  I knew how unprepared I was, knew that I had nothing to offer my dying patient, no experience, no empathy even because I was young.  What the hell did I know about dying?

I don't remember how that patient died but I know it was on the same unit my father died years later.  Since then I have had many, many patients die.  Makes me sound like an awful nurse but it's reality.  People die.  Nurses take care of them as they're dying and after they die.

One of my patients was named Laura.  She was an elderly lady who died in the 1980s.  Nobody ever came to visit her and when she died there was nobody to pick up her things.  I took her African violet home after she died, which somebody must have bought her, and I kept that violet for years.  It always reminded me of her.  

On that same unit, I had a patient die and then we coded her.  She was a woman with breast cancer who had never seen a doctor, never received any treatment and she had not told her family until she had been admitted.  She died two days later;  the cancer had spread everywhere.  I remember there was a lot of blood, they had done a cut down to get a line into her.  There was garbage all over the floor.  Her family waited in the hallway while the code team worked on her.  There was probably fifteen or twenty people in the room and one doctor in charge, loudly calling out instructions.  When the code was called and they stopped compressions, the patient still had agonal respirations;  I didn't even know what those were, had never seen them.  It was horrific and I have hated codes ever since.  

I've found patients dead in their beds, dead in the toilet, one patient died while in the elevator on a stretcher.  I've watched them take their last breaths, held their hands, comforted their families and been yelled at by their families.  I've given morphine to patients, knowing it will be their last dose and turned patients early on an evening shift because I knew they would die when they were turned and the fluids in their body shifted;  that particular patient was four hundred pounds and there was no way nights could move his body on their own, so we did it while evening shift was still there to help.

I have washed bodies after patients have died, put beds flat so that the patient won't end up in a strange position when rigor mortis set in ( I learned that one the hard way), wrapped patients in shrouds,  attached toe tags and taken patients to the morgue at all hours of the day and night.  I've packed up belongings, called families and cried.

I've done all of this for the past thirty-five years and never once has my grief been acknowledged by management or even by myself.  I carry all of my dead patients with me, still;  working in a cancer hospital has only increased the number of dead I carry with me.  I think back to ten years ago when I first started working at the cancer hospital and the majority of those patients are no longer living.  There is no memorial, no place for nurses to remember our dead, we carry them in our hearts.  Yesterday when my patient's father invited me to her memorial I cried and realized how many dead there are around us, how many we carry with us. 

Perhaps nurses need to find a way to honour our dead.


  1. I'm sure this is something that all of us non-nurses neither appreciate nor understand -- what it's like to face death so frequently as part of your profession. I've said it before, but my hat's off to you.

  2. You do a hard job for sure. I agree you should have some way to deal with all the death you must see. x

  3. I think you have struck a note here that many in health professions resonate with. I know when I was in nursing school we had one class on death and dying but it wasn't of much help, really, in the real world. Or maybe it was. I don't know. But this is an aspect of nursing that no one really talks about- how to carry on, literally and emotionally, after a death. Finish the shift doing what you must do for the one who died and their family and the living who also need your care. Do the charting. Go home. Live your life as if nothing has happened. But of course that's not really possible, is it?
    Oh, lady. I am so looking forward to your trip away. May it restore your soul. At least a little bit.

  4. Tears and remembering honor those who have died. You honor the worldwide community of nurses who grieve separately, without communal places for grieving in this world where so few except nurses see the many faces of dying and death anymore. Thank you for opening my eyes today and reminding me of the only time I have seen death up close and the few times I have been with a person who was close to death. The lanterns remind me of a ritual in my community in response to deaths from cancer.

  5. My DIL is a nurse and when I see what a pittance she is paid it makes me so angry. I wouldn't know about the US or Canada but I don't think the salaries are that great in the UK either - and yet, where would we be without our wonderful nurses? I think in the UK they were recently offered a 1% pay rise! 1%, when the bloody politicians vote their own generous pay increases. 1% for those covid heroes everyone was clapping for last year! Again, I could NOT do your job!

  6. A moving post that touches on the business of death without whispering about it or worse still - saying nothing. There must be an emotional reckoning for all health workers who appear to take death in their stride.
    P.S. What does to "code" someone mean? I don't understand this.

    1. A code is a code blue, a reuscitation. The patient is dead, or almost dead and all efforts are made to restore their heartbeat. CPR.