Nurses are not strangers to getting phone calls from friends and acquaintances seeking medical advice, referrals and drive-by assessments. And for many of us, being a nurse includes managing family medical responsibilities. We are relied upon for input on when to see a physician or visit an emergency room or maybe to decipher test results or review a new prescription. Over the past five years, I wore the family nurse hat as my parents’ health declined and they passed away. I am the fifth of six children, but the only one with a career in the healthcare field. My parents each had living wills and I was given medical power of attorney. In theory, it was a smart, proactive, straightforward plan. In reality, it had some issues.
My father fell ill first. A retired physician, my father definitely knew the importance of his living will and the path he was on.
In 2011, a urinary tract infection quickly became sepsis and within a few hours my mother was faced with the decision to either follow her heart or a document. My father was placed on a ventilator, dopamine and a feeding tube, and he needed dialysis. This is basically everything he didn’t want at the end of his life. It broke my heart to see him suffering, yet it also crushed me to see my mother’s grief and denial of the situation. It fell to me to balance my father’s wishes with my mother’s need for time and hope and to accept what was happening.
Forty-eight hours later, after a meeting and prayers with her priest and friends, I braved the difficult conversation with my mother with information from the physicians and living will in hand. Finally, my mother and I understood the task ahead of us. The three of us were together in that ICU room when my dad took his last breath, as my mother professed her love for him.
Afterward, I struggled with my role as daughter-nurse. My mother would call me for recaps, reviews and reassurance that we made the right decision. She depended on my knowledge, my strength and my love.
Because of my dad’s passing she became more concerned about illness and death. During our visits, she would point out important documents and instructions. When a friend was diagnosed with cancer, she reminded me that she did not want to be subjected to chemotherapy at her age. She actually planned the music and liturgy for her funeral to be sure it was what she wanted. So, four years later, when a fall with a broken leg became a bone cancer diagnosis, my mother called me from a hospital room and asked me to take her home — and home we went. My mother died within a week.
At times I felt like I couldn’t be the sad, grieving daughter because I was measuring morphine, bathing or turning her or making phone calls. What was my role? Nurse, daughter or both? Sometimes I am still overcome with the grief and the responsibility that I shouldered. They trusted me to help them with possibly their most important journey.
Looking back, I felt it was my duty as a nurse to give my parents the best care and make the best decisions for their treatment. In assuming that role, my feelings and grief as a daughter were delayed. Of course there were moments that I held their hands and expressed my love and gratitude, but I was more focused on their care and tasks in front of me.
Months went by before I finally was able to reflect upon it all. I cried daily and found solace in talking with friends and co-workers who had similar experiences.
Time has passed. Some days I am still sad and think about my choices and the care I provided during that time. On other days I am in awe of the gift I was given.
I was with both my parents when they took their last breaths and their souls left their physical bodies. •
To comment, email [email protected]