Ask any nurse to share a story of a memorable patient and you’ll likely be kept entertained for hours. The stories may range from heart pounding to heartwarming, with just enough gore to make you regret asking. But ask anyway. Because I’m willing to bet that every nurse remembers at least one patient who changed their life for the better and the lesson learned may change your life as well.
I had first met Will during nursing school. He was 22 and recently diagnosed with testicular cancer. In those days, testicular cancer was nearly always fatal, especially for young men whose testosterone levels flowed high. But Will was upbeat and confident that he could beat the odds. He had plans for his life. A recent college grad, engaged to be married, on the cusp of a full and rewarding life, he faced down the surgical removal of his testicles with the courage of the bravest warrior. He was in the fight of his life and had no doubt that he would win. His boyish grin melted my heart. I had cheered him on through surgery and the start of chemo. His diagnosis was likely a death sentence and that knowledge hung over us as I walked the halls with him, when the nausea made it impossible for him to rest in bed. We walked together slowly as he talked of his plans for his future and I fought back tears of rage at the random injustices of life.
I, too, was engaged, about to graduate and start my new life, and couldn’t imagine that life could be taken from one so young and so brave. I tended to him when chemo racked his body with ceaseless vomiting. I believed right along with him that all would be well. Why wouldn’t it be? He was young and fit and had done nothing to cause this cruel disease. He would live to marry his fiancé and succeed in his career and see his children graduate and raise families of their own. Because he was good and he was brave. And because that was right and I was still young enough to believe that life was fair.
Six months later, there I was, a new grad, hurrying to finish my charting at the end of a long shift. It was Friday afternoon and I’d had my fill of caring for the old and the infirm. Outside the doors of the hospital, the sun was shining and I would soon rejoin the carefree world of twenty-somethings, off to a weekend in the Hamptons. The sight of his name on the admission papers stopped me in my tracks. Will had returned to my unit for end of life care – a bald, emaciated version of the Will I remembered. Chemo had failed. The cancer had spread. The fiancé had bailed. All we could offer were IV fluids and drugs to control the vomiting and attempt to alleviate the pain. He rang his call bell minutes before the end of my shift and asked me to walk with him until the pain medicine took hold.
My friends were waiting for me. I had earned my weekend at the beach. But I felt I owed it to Will to walk with him. Perhaps I felt guilty for feeling so healthy and alive while he was dying. We walked slowly, up and down the halls, pushing his IV pole. I tried to see beyond the gaunt young man at my side to remember the grinning young warrior from just a few short months before. His boyish grin had aged into a weary smile. I pushed aside my plans for the weekend and listened to the words of a dying boy.
We spoke of death. It seems that no topic is off limits to the dying. No beating around the bush. Yes, he was dying. But, as he pointed out, so was I.
From the moment we are born, we all begin the process of dying. We are all dealt a finite number of days. I may only have one day left and might meet destiny under the wheels of a bus the next day. Or, I may have 70 years left to fritter away before the reality of my death rears up and smacks me in the face. Regardless, we are all dying. And no amount of praying or money or power will spare us from the inevitable. Just as we tend to squander the first few days of a vacation, only to try to capture and savor that last sunset, we tend to squander our lives, lost in the luxury of so many days and years, only to bargain for more time at the end. At 21, I had already witnessed the drama of life and death. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty and it certainly wasn’t fair, but it had instilled an appreciation for life that not many my age shared.
The pain eased and Will returned to bed. I made him as comfortable as possible and promised to walk with him again when I returned to work on Monday.
My weekend at the beach was as it should be with laughter and sunshine tempered with the occasional thought of Will and his struggle to hold onto life. When I returned to work on Monday morning, Will was gone. He had died early Sunday morning and another patient already occupied his bed with a new set of needs and story to tell. Waiting for me at the nursing station was a blue ceramic planter/music box which had sat on his windowsill. His note simply read “Remember our talks. Live well.”
Even now, on those nearly perfect days which I am acutely aware of how lucky I am to be alive, I remember Will and the lessons I learned from his final battle in life.