I have worked with many terminally ill patients at home and in the hospital as a registered nurse (RN) of 40 years. I was also with my mom and grandmother until their deaths, which were painful and horrible to watch. I really miss both of them, but was relieved when their suffering ended.
As medical professionals, it’s our job is to help our patients and advocate for them. You never take away their hope, but you have to be honest about the pros and cons. Sometimes there’s no potential for a cure – that’s the time for pain and symptom management.
My mom was 80 years old when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She was a strong-willed person and said, “I’ve lived a really good life. I’ll get the mastectomy, but I won’t do radiation or chemo.” I wanted her to at least do radiation, but respected that it was her decision.
She lived one year cancer-free before finding out that her cancer had metastasized to her spine. At that point, she went in for radiation. That didn’t eliminate the cancer and there was nothing else they could offer her so she started receiving palliative care through a hospice team.
The last six weeks of her life, she was facing lots of problems so I went to take care of her during that time. They weren’t doing anything substantial to manage her pain and she was visibly very uncomfortable. Finally, they put her opioids, but she was in constant pain nonetheless. The last day of her life, I already knew she was dying, it was horrible. She was thrashing, groaning and gasping. There wasn’t anything I could do to relieve the agony she was going through. It was a horrendous death.
I take care of people and advocate for them to get appropriate pain medications and palliative treatments, so it was devastating that I couldn’t do anything to help relieve my mother’s suffering. I’ve always been an advocate for patient choice, especially having seen what I’ve seen as an RN. Witnessing my mother’s death reaffirmed my position that dying patients need more options at the end of life. The suffering they experience is like taking a piece of a person – they lose a little bit of themselves everyday through their pain and loss of quality of life.
Most legislators don’t have the medical expertise to understand the suffering people endure at the end of their lives. The everyday individual doesn’t think about it until it happens to them or their families. It’s heartbreaking and anxiety provoking when you’re seeing your loved one go through that and you’re not able to do anything for them.