By: Marlene Goodwin-Esola, Academic Chief Nursing Officer

I am honored to share my heartfelt thoughts on the tremendous effect that a nurse can have when faced with a dying patient.  Nurses are privileged to care for patients as they enter the world as a newborn, and as they leave this life in the dying process.  A tenet of the nursing curriculum and a noteworthy attribute to the profession is the act of “caring”—the practice of looking after those who need assistance caring for themselves.  A 2015 Gallop poll continues to reveal that nursing is the most trusted profession, followed in the top five are other crucial members of the health care team: doctors, pharmacists, and clergy.  Without skilled and compassionate nurses, the trust felt by the patient during the end of life journey would risk being devoid of the caring approach to a phenomenal aspect of living—the process of dying.  Nurses have been, and will continue to be, critical to end-of-life care.  We are at the bedside of the hospitalized patient 24/7.  One of the key roles that a nurse plays is in facilitating the conversation when a patient and their loved ones has questions about the dying process

Unfortunately, not all of us are comfortable initiating a candid conversation about options for the patient with a terminal disease.  The newer nurse may not have experienced a dying patient and feel anxious in handling the exchange.   We have the “do you have an advanced directive?” conversation when the patient enters the system, but sometimes the conversation stops there, and there are questions left unanswered, and anxieties begin where they can be avoided.   If the patient is facing a terminal illness, we have to be brave enough to have discussions about end of life options and if we cannot for whatever reason, it is imperative that we find someone on the health care team who can help us.   In addition to the physician’s support, we are fortunate to have two additional resources at JMC that the nursing team can call to help us develop the plan of care for the dying patient.   We have a full time hospital Chaplain who is available for us when a patient and their family needs spiritual guidance, and we have an additional role that has already made an effect in the timeliness of end of life options: our Clinical Resource Nurse Educator or “pre-Rapid Response RN.”  This nurse has over 25 years of critical care and end-of-life experience and she is available for us to meet with families should they have questions about this time in their lives.

On a personal note, when I was two years out of nursing school (in the 1980’s), my 28 year-old friend was diagnosed with leukemia.   This was the pre-bone marrow transplant era, so she was faced with a poor prognosis.   Her will to face her death with dignity taught me an immeasurable lesson: she took control of her last days by planning her funeral and asking me to be a pall bearer.   I was tremendously humbled and in awe of this, and vowed to always allow the patient an atmosphere of trust in their thoughts and fears about their death, and to honor their wishes as best I could.   Avoiding the discussion about dying wishes creates an atmosphere of fear and dying “alone” by not allowing the sharing of their wishes.  When a patient tells us “I am ready”, we need to stop what we are doing and make this wish a priority.    We—the nursing profession—need to always partner with other members of the heath care team to manage the priorities at the end of life to include the positioning, hydration, nutrition, pain and comfort measures, providing support to the patient’s loved ones, and most importantly, allowing the patient to die with dignity.  We—nursing leaders—need to provide the newer generation of nurses the education they need to become comfortable caring for the dying patient, or seeking help from other experts.  We need to continue the core of who we are as a profession as we are privileged to be a part of someone’s last days—to provide care, comfort, support, and lastly, our presence during this sacred time.

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