Friday, May 10, 2013
A Letter to the Director of Nursing
In honor of Nurses' Appreciation Week this week, I am posting a letter that I recently sent to the Director of Nursing at the hospital where my dad was treated in hopes that she is able to use the information I provided to recognize three nurses at that facility who provided truly extraordinary care during my dad's illness.
Dear [Director of Nursing],
I am writing to let you know about three nurses who provided outstanding care for my father, William L. Bullard, when he was a patient on the oncology floor in December of 2010.
My dad was initially hospitalized at Centennial just a few days short of his 67th birthday on October 23, 2010, when he was transported there due to disorientation experienced on a ten-mile run. An MRI showed a large mass in his brain that was later revealed to be Glioblastoma Multiforme, which as you know is Stage IV brain cancer. He had surgery and spent a few days in the Neuro-ICU and then a few more on the Neuro floor, and, although in both cases the nursing care was adequate, my family was glad when he was discharged after a total of ten days there.
A few weeks later, on December 21, 2010, my dad was re-admitted to Centennial, and again in the ER the nursing care was fair, in most cases competent but not outstanding by any stretch. When he was moved up to the Oncology floor, though, we were lucky enough to have our case assigned that night to a nurse named Meredith who provided exceptional care for Dad and who took both Dad and my family under her wing, even requesting to have Dad as her patient on other shifts she worked while we were on her floor over the next several days. She provided highly commendable care for Dad and for us; she seemed to see not just Dad but those of us caring for him as her patients, and she gave us not only the physical support we needed but some much-needed emotional support as well. As my sister later said, Meredith appeared to see Dad through our eyes, and that is something that was so significant to us and that we will always remember. To us, Dad wasn’t a terminally-ill cancer patient; he our champion, an Ironman athlete, brilliant in thinking and indomitable in physical presence. Very unfortunately, though, during the course of his illness, the majority of the health care workers with whom we came into contact appeared to see him just as a patient, and honestly it seemed like some of them didn’t really see him at all.
My dad was very sick and as a result was intermittently confused and distressed while we were in the hospital that second time, but he took an instant liking to Meredith, as did we. She bore a resemblance to one of my sister’s best friends from high school, a girl named Angie. Despite the fact that Dad hadn’t seen Angie in many years, he too noticed the similarity in Meredith’s appearance and started calling her Angie, which Meredith said she took as a compliment. “I feel like I’ve known you for a long time, too!” she told Dad, which made him smile and warmed our hearts.
Nurse Meredith, aka “Angie”, was with us again for the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. night shift that second night we were on the Oncology floor (12/22/10). My sister and I stayed overnight with Dad and were impressed by not just Meredith’s competence but also by her compassion and her coolness under pressure, particularly when things started spiraling out of control for my dad late that night. For no apparent reason, his heart rate shot up and he started having trouble breathing; we called for Meredith, who sprinted down the hall to check on Dad but couldn’t figure out what was going on. Dad’s heart rate continued to climb, and then he started saying he was freezing and then making comments that we didn’t quite understand, with lots of talk about death which shook my sister and me to the very core. Despite the temperature of the room being warm and several blankets being placed over Dad in the bed, his teeth were chattering so much that we had to strain to understand him.
My sister and I were terrified; we agreed later that it was the first time we thought Dad was actually going to die right in front of us, and we felt completely helpless. Meredith stayed right with us and was such a calming force for Dad and for us. At one point, the three of us were almost lying on top of him trying to warm him up and to calm him down. After more than an hour, we realized that neither verbal nor physical comfort measures were going to be effective in battling the panic and the terror Dad was experiencing, and Meredith raced to get a sedative for Dad, which, five minutes later, had him resting soundly.
Looking back, I’m not sure that my dad would have made it through that night without Meredith, and certainly my sister and I would have been much more at a loss without her expertise and, more importantly, without her kindness, which is something that stays with us to this day.
Although Dad ended up being stabilized for the night, unfortunately his condition continued to deteriorate, and, on Christmas Eve, he was transferred to the ICU – actually, due to hospital staffing shortages during the holidays, to the CCU. There we dealt with many challenging issues, some involving nursing and some not, but suffice to say our stay there was a terrible experience overall, and we were very glad when Dad was moved back to the Oncology floor two days after Christmas – and even happier when we realized that we had once again been lucky enough to be assigned to an exceptional nurse, this time in the form of an RN named Dave. Again due to staffing problems that we didn't really undersand, my dad was placed on a unit that didn't really fit with his diagnosis; this time it was the Bone Marrow Transplant unit on the Oncology floor.
My dad had been struggling to take in enough calories for quite some time; he often reported feeling “zero hungry” or, even worse, feeling nauseous at just the idea of food. When we clued Dave into the fact that we were very concerned about Dad’s caloric intake, Dave offered lots of “extras,” some of which Dad said “yes” to and then ate (including a Snickers bar). Without even being asked, he brought extra blankets because Dad continued to say he was cold, and he provided extra pillows to prop Dad up so that he felt warmer and more secure. Unlike our days in the CCU, with Dave it felt like we were no longer having to beg for what Dad needed; in fact, it seemed like Dave somehow anticipated not just Dad’s physical needs but also many of his emotional ones as well.
Throughout his stay in the hospital this second time around, including the four days in the ICU, pain from a bed sore on his lower back had continued to plague Dad. Dave was excellent at gently re-positioning Dad in different ways in the bed so that the pressure was taken off that area; he made an effort each time he came into the room to explain what he was doing and why to Dad and to us and even had me demonstrate my understanding of skills like propping Dad up with lots of pillows and rolled blankets. He wasn’t just acting as a nurse; he was also a teacher and a friend.
Tag-teaming with Day Shift Dave, as we called him, was Night Shift Jim, another nurse in whose care we were grateful to have Dad placed. Like Dave, Jim was very patient in teaching us about how to address Dad’s medical needs. Both of them somehow balanced empathetically caring for Dad with providing us with a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on in the hallway. They seemed to be available whenever we needed them, but we didn’t feel like they were hovering or intruding. Looking back, I see that, whether it was because they saw up close how very sick Dad was or because they took the time to listen to him and to us, they somehow “got” the seriousness of Dad’s condition and even the rhythm of his illness and of our grief.
After almost two weeks of seeing Dad in a downward spiral, one morning I stood in the hallway outside of Dad’s room crying, and Dave came over and put his hand on my shoulder. He said he had heard my conversation with the oncologist during which I had asked how we would know when it was time to consider hospice – and the oncologist had essentially said “Not yet,” which I felt like was not an answer to my question. “He doesn’t see what we see,” Dave said. “I know!” I wailed. “Sometimes that is the case with oncologists,” he said gently. “It’s like their only goal is a cure, and sometimes that just isn’t going to happen. Sometimes treatment doesn’t work. Sometimes treatment isn’t what a patient really needs or wants. Sometimes the oncologists don’t know when to say when.” He paused, and then he added, “You can ask for more information on Hospice without making any kind of commitment.” As my sobbing subsided, I considered his words carefully. I knew we needed help and more information before making any kind of decision. I knew we had to figure something out and that we needed to do it quickly.
Later that day, my sister and I approached Dave to talked more about hospice. We had seen a flyer for one hospice provider in the waiting room (not the most uplifting thing to see in an oncology-ward waiting room, I must say, but we ended up being glad to have the info), and we were familiar with two other providers in the area – one was the agency already providing hospice care for my dad’s mom, and the other had helped care for my mom’s mom in the end stages of her battle with cancer almost 18 years before. Dave suggested that we make an appointment with a representative from all three agencies to learn about each one. “I think you should sit each of the reps down and ask them specifically, ‘What makes your agency the best choice for us?’”
We took his advice to heart, and we did just what he had suggested.
In what came to mirror the way I desperately wanted to shield Dad from the knowledge that he had cancer around the time of his surgery, I pulled out all the stops to avoid having him know that we were signing on with hospice. This seems incredibly short-sighted now, but at the time I wanted the focus to be on living, not dying, even then. When I talked to Jim about my plan, he let me tape a sign to the outside of the door to Dad’s room that said, “DO NOT MENTION HOSPICE! PATIENT KNOWS HE IS GOING HOME TOMORROW BUT IS NOT AWARE OF HOSPICE SERVICES.” I'm sure he realized the ridiculousness of my request - as if shielding Dad from knowing about hospice could save him from what I really wanted to protect him from - but he respected my grief process and also, I guess, my need to try to control the very few things that I possibly could at that point, and I was very grateful for that.
While Dad slept that night, my sisters and I talked to Jim again about how worried we were that we wouldn’t be able to take good enough care of Dad at home. Jim was very reassuring and even helped us to make a list of supplies that we would need to have on hand at home, again honoring our desire to feel that we had some kind of command over an out-of-control situation. He sang the praises of hospice care and of the support they had to offer, which we soon learned to be the absolute truth.
Looking back at my dad’s last few days in the hospital, which turned out to be just about a week before he died, I am not sure my family would have decided to take Dad home on hospice there at the end without the input and the support we received from both Jim and Dave. For my family and certainly for my dad, as my mom and my sisters and I have discussed many times over the past couple of years, while changing the setting in which Dad spend his last few days probably wouldn’t have lengthened his life any, having him at the hospital instead of in the comfort of my parents' home certainly would have changed the quality of that time for him – and for us, and that is why we will forever be grateful for the way things happened there at the end of Dad's hospital stay.
I can’t count how many times over the past couple of years I have intended to try to get a message to these three nurses to thank them. I hope they are still with Centennial and that the details I have provided will help you to identify them so that they can be recognized, although appreciation in any form seems inadequate given the gift with which they left my family through the truly exceptional care they provided during the most difficult time of our lives.
In case this does make it to Meredith, to Jim, and to Dave, though, here’s my message: thank you, and may your kindness and your skill be recognized and rewarded; my family will never forget you.
Stephanie Bullard Lancaster