The Sun is one of two literary journals that I have unsuccessfully submitted to over the years. The other is the Bellevue Literary Review.
Close to 20 years ago, I drove to The Sun’s offices, parked in front of a single-family house on Roberson Street in Chapel Hill, and placed my submission, an essay doubled-spaced on hard copy, folded, and slipped into a legal-size envelope along with a cover letter and self-addressed-stamped-envelope, in the mailbox by the front door. I drove back to my home some five miles away and waited.
Imagine my pleasant surprise to find that each journal has recently published an essay by a nurse. And the topic is similar: hospice.
I can’t display sour grapes because I have long promoted nurses telling their stories. And since I have worked as a hospice nurse, I know that hospice care is poorly understood and underutilized.
Every Baby Needs to be Rocked by Barbara Woodmansee, The Sun, May 2022
Barbara Woodmansee is a hospice nurse who is stationed at a local hospital awaiting referrals from the staff. She has been told to keep a low profile. Her essay tells of seven hospice admissions. They give an overview of the types of patients hospice manages and the variety of services that the hospice program provides. Woodmansee shows how hospice intervention makes a difference in a patient’s last days along with the roadblocks she faces in providing care. She also tells us of a personal experience that inspired her to be a hospice nurse.
One of Woodmansee’s patients, Carrie, is a woman in her early 20s who developed COVID after delivering a heathy son. Her immune system has failed, and she has “multisystem organ failure; sepsis has debilitated her heart, kidneys, liver, and lungs to the degree that she has no reserve left to fight her infection.”
Woodmansee is present in the hospital room where the patient’s family gathers while life support is withdrawn. “Once the ventilator is removed, Carrie’s entire family stands at the bedside, each with a hand on her body—all except for her mother. Ann has taken Carrie’s infant son to the car. When her daughter dies, she is holding the baby.”
Woodmansee notes that “COVID has made me even more aware of my inability to support everyone affected by a patient’s death: the dying person, the family, and the staff who are trying so hard. One of the important gifts we (hospice nurses) give to families in hospice is our presence, but we have to move so much faster now, with so many new barriers between us, both physical and psychological. Worst of all, we’re getting used to it.”
With that, Woodmansee shows what nurses feel and the relentless circumstances they have had to deal with the COVID pandemic. Her essay also shows the personal investment a nurse makes to each of her/his patients.
On The Brink by Barbara West, Bellevue Literary Review, Issue 42, 2011 BLR Prize Winners.
Barbara West, an on-call hospice nurse, deals with an unclear after-hours emergency. She visits the double-wide trailer occupied by an elderly sister and brother. What she finds is the brother, slumped over in a wheelchair close to death while the caregiver/sister seems bent on ignoring reality.
After West attempts to lift the brother from the wheelchair to the bed, a loud sound emits from his body, and his breathing stops. She says, “If you work in hospice long enough, you’re bound to be accused of murder at some point. It could be over the phone, in a moment of passion from a guilt-ridden, out-of-state, family member. Or in person, simply because you’re the one at the door at that pivotal moment. Or maybe because you’re the white nurse with a Northern accent, the face of the American health care system that denied Daddy access to dialysis back in Oklahoma. For the first time in my career, I wondered if I might now have actually done what I’d previously only been accused of.”
West misses the interdisciplinary team that is available during usual working hours. Now on a Friday night, she alone must address all the issues other team members would. And it is when she notes their skills, the reader is made aware of the rich services a hospice program can deliver. But we also realize that, in the absence of other team members, nurses can assure that appropriate care is given.
The humor threaded through this story softens the sharp edges that West overcomes in steering the brother’s death to an acceptable closure. But the reader sees what discomfort West carries within her. She seeks reassurance from a coworker that she handled this case correctly. We learn that memories, both pleasant and uncomfortable, long remain with nurses when making judgements they must make on their own.
May we see more nurses writing their stories outside of nursing journals for the public to enjoy and be enlightened and to realize that nurses do make a difference.