Twenty-four nurses trailed into the room. They found seats within the circular configuration of chairs, where I sat.
A mound of rocks rested in the middle of the circle. Interesting, I thought. The neat formation of rocks waited on the floor as if they belonged there. Speckled patterns mingled among hues of gray, tan, and brown. The grouping appeared grounded and peaceful.
Hushed voices leaned into one another with conjecture. Why were chairs in a circle and rocks heaped high?
My curiosity faded as my feet’s fiery soles screamed for attention. It had been an especially long shift at the cancer center where I work as an oncology nurse.
A few hours ago, I didn’t think I could muster enough energy to take one more step—emotionally or physically. I glanced at the clock: 4:45 pm. Another two and a half hours before my drive home.
I scanned the conference room, looking to see if anyone else’s behavior mirrored my lack of enthusiasm. On the periphery, I glimpsed a nurse lugging herself into the room; she looked more prepared for pajamas than a two-hour meeting.
Normal nurse talk picked up, passing the time until the start of our staff meeting: the chemo reaction in chair 15, the terminal patient admitted to hospice care, a pancreatic cancer patient’s favorable response to chemotherapy, and the recent dress code policy changes. Others engaged with their cell phones, reading text messages and browsing social media.
Sometimes I wonder if the distractions protect us.
We try to prepare ourselves for life’s inevitable. Recently, an unusual number of patients died. Others are at end stages of life. Coping with the losses holds a unique challenge as we find little opportunity to grieve. Instead, we push through to care for the living patients before us.
Each day, patients uncover their hardships behind drawn privacy curtains. A mastectomy patient spills her load: “I can’t bear to undress in front of my husband.” Covered in an unsightly rash, the colorectal patient confesses, “It’s embarrassing; people stare at me like I am a freak. I can’t handle the side effects of this chemo.” The leukemia patient, too ill to drive, mourns her loss of independence.
There are times when patients and families share enormous issues that can’t fit into tiny exam rooms. I have heard cries follow the doctor’s words: “Your cancer is not responding to the chemotherapy,” or “It may be time for hospice.”
I try to process other heavy moments:
Please join me over at Art House America to read the rest…
(Photograph by Johnson Wang)