Taking the Last Steps with You

When I first met Shirley (not her real name), a 48 year-old patient, she had been in our telemetry unit for about two weeks earlier this year. She was initially admitted to the ICU with a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs). Quickly she was diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain and other organs. The news came so suddenly that the total shock turned Shirley and her family’s lives upside down.

Her family and doctors wanted to fight the cancer with every opportunity, but her body was deteriorating every day, causing her to lose a lot of weight and to feel weak and exhausted. As a result she needed help with her daily activities such as getting out of bed, walking a few steps, and even going to the bathroom, things that most people take for granted. Chemotherapy and aggressive treatments proved to be futile to halt the progression of the cancer.

In the face of these challenges, Shirley and her husband made it known to the medical and nursing staff that they were Christians and that they were leaning on their strong faith to support them. They dealt with it one day at a time. They also kept a Bible in the room.

Gradually, they came to accept the poor prognosis and that a cure was beyond reach. The focus shifted to providing comfort care for Shirley. They had two young children aged 10 and 12 who were pulling at her heart’s string. She worried about what might happen to them after she was gone.

One day, I was assigned to be Shirley’s nurse. Early that morning, Shirley had the signs of a stroke and it was confirmed by a CT scan. At the CT suite, sensing her husband Henry’s (not his real name) anxiety, I explained the process to ease his mind.

The stroke caused Shirley to have slight difficulty in speaking and her mobility also slowed down. She had to depend more on the nursing staff for meeting her physical needs. While I attended to her physical needs, I spoke to both of them in Mandarin to build rapport. I let them know that I too was a Christian, and I understood their worries. I invited them to talk, letting them know that I was willing to listen. I also encouraged them to continue their plea before the Lord, to pour out their hearts to him, and to tell Him about their pain, suffering, concerns and fears as they faced the bleak future. I reminded them that our Lord was there to listen and to embrace them to give them tranquility. I also offered to pray for her discomfort. She nodded and thanked me for the spiritual support.

Since Henry was there every day in the hospital at his wife’s side, I came to notice that he was her spokesperson. He asked questions, got clarifications from the physicians, kept his friends informed, and provided emotional support to his wife. However, he masked his vulnerability by appearing to be strong and stoic. On the morning of Shirley’s stroke, Henry became noticeably distraught. He asked me how much time his wife had to live. To affirm and validate his feelings, I attuned to his sadness, and let him express his sorrow at his pace. I acknowledged that it must be very difficult for both of them during this challenging time, with no one knowing exactly how long his wife would be with us. It was an opportunity to share with them that God’s amazing love would accompany and sustain them during this journey. As they held onto their unyielding faith and love of Jesus Christ, I offered to call our chaplain. It was an emotional moment, and Henry was at the verge of tears. I encouraged him to take a well-deserved break and get some rest, telling him that if there were any changes with his wife’s condition, I would contact him to come back right away. He became relaxed enough to take off for about an hour.

No sooner had Henry departed, Shirley woke up and seemed anxious and restless. At this point she spoke only slowly, but she was breathing faster than normal. To allay her anxiety and make her more comfortable, I notified the physician team to assess her situation. Two lady doctors arrived and immediately one of them, Dr. Li sat down by the bed. Speaking in Mandarin, she held Shirley’s hands and picked up the Bible in the room. In a soothing tone and voice, Dr. Li asked Shirley what her favorite verses were. Dr. Li then proceeded to read a few of her chosen verses. Then she added a verse of her own from First Corinthians. Hearing the Bible verses, Shirley calmed down, breathed easier, and stopped being anxious. She drifted back to sleep.

It was very touching for me to witness a physician openly reading the Bible to a patient and providing comfort to the patient. The healing relationship between the healthcare provider and the patient was strengthened through love, humanity and sharing when no medical treatment was able to cure or stop the illness. The love of our Lord Jesus and His Word demonstrated that the Great Healer brings everlasting peace.

A few days later, Shirley passed away peacefully to be with the Lord.

By Mandy Jeppesen

Herald Cancer Care Volunteer