Monday, May 1, 2017

A death I nursed

Jeanne at Carlisle Pines State Forest (MA), 2014

The nurse educator with the biggest influence on my personal and professional life was Jeanne, the nurse educator I married.

The first serious discussion we ever had was about death.

One Saturday night in early October, 1975, my best friend’s father died suddenly at home. Jeanne was the head of my third-year nursing program, and on Monday I told her I would be absent for the rest of the week, missing three full clinical days as well as another day of class.

It was right at the start of a full curriculum in a tight schedule, and I expected her to object. But instead, Jeanne listened, asked what else I needed, and said not to worry, that we’d find a way to make up the lost time.

One year later, my casual visit to the school as a newly-minted RN led to more conversations and, later, a date to watch the Boston Ballet. Things happened, and we married in 1981.

Fast forward to January, 2016 - our final approach to Jeanne’s end of life after five years of Alzheimer’s. Here was the time to apply everything I ever learned in classes and clinical settings.

We often talked about death in those intervening years. Not morbidly or obsessively, but simply because we shared a profession and benefitted from each other’s perspective.

We supported each other as we lost family members and friends, and made sure to say, “Please, don’t ever do this to me when I die!” whenever we saw something we didn’t want for ourselves - embalming and an open casket, a funeral in a church, a line of limos in a crowded cemetery by a busy highway, dove-shaped balloons, tension.

We had conversations about advanced disease and our preferences for care - usually in the context of someone else’s illness, and again often provoked by what we saw, personally and professionally. “Please don’t let them do this to me if I’m ever that sick!”

Our plan of care in Jeanne’s final years was straightforward, with simple goals based entirely on what was important to her, and on what she wanted: to be safe, comfortable, and content at home, where she could be dignified and loved.

We met our goals.

It was the last, most critical test we ever faced. I can’t remember if it was easy or hard. We were just trying to make the best of a bad situation. But for me, as was the case in all the rest of our lives together, it was really a matter of keeping up with Jeanne.

read Jeanne's obituary here