Confessions of a hospice nurse: 'Death is never easy'

"You're always dealing with someone who won't be around for too long ... but you never get used to death."

    Marilyn Walker is an on-call triage nurse at the Metropolitan Jewish Health System's (MJHS) hospice [Mir Ubaid/Al Jazeera]
    Marilyn Walker is an on-call triage nurse at the Metropolitan Jewish Health System's (MJHS) hospice [Mir Ubaid/Al Jazeera]

    New York, US - If Marilyn Walker's old car could talk, it would have a few stories to tell. In her 90-minute commute to and from work, the vehicle turns into her place of solace. That was especially true in the time following her husband's death nearly nine years ago.

    She recalls her routine: "Getting in my car and screaming. Getting in my car and crying. Getting in my car, talking to the car, and telling her what I'm going through, saying: 'I'm really trying to handle this, maybe we could do this together.' Just me and my car."

    But when she arrives at work, the 56-year-old knows that her emotional breakdowns cannot follow her inside. The breast cancer survivor is an on-call triage nurse working with terminally ill patients at the MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care Centre in Brooklyn, New York.

    "I can't let my patients and their families see me cry. I have to be strong," she says.

    A voice of compassion and comfort

    So she dyes her hair, makes sure to wear a pop of colour and smiles: her warmth, charisma and energy a stark contrast to the nature of her work.

    A large part of her job involves visiting patients in their homes and processing new admissions, making first assessments about an incoming patient's physical and mental state and the level of care they will require. 

    "It's a lot of work, but this job has helped me to come to terms with myself and my own experiences," she says.

    As a teenager during the Second World War, Francoise Levinthal was a member of the French Resistance. She was imprisoned in a concentration camp, but later earned her PhD and became a tenured professor at Columbia University. In this photo, Levinthal, 90, is resting at home as her daughter brushes her hair and Dolores Navarro, an MJHS Hospice nurse, visits [Courtesy of MJHS]

    In 2007, her husband, Conrad, was admitted to hospital after suffering from hypertension. He died of a haemorrhagic stroke a month later. 

    His death was just one of many life-changing experiences that drew Marilyn towards a career in hospice care. A few years before, her aunt died of pancreatic cancer.

    "I loved my [aunt] so much and losing her was difficult," she says. "That experience made me want to give back to others who might be dealing with the type of pain she was going through."

    Over the years, Marilyn has become a source of strength and a shoulder to cry on for many in her care.

    She spends several hours a day on the telephone, she says, helping people who call the hospice for a variety of reasons - aches and pains, depression, and sometimes just looking for someone to talk to.

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    "When we get phone calls that a family member has died, your disposition is a little different," she says. "You can speak to someone and say: 'I am so sorry that you lost the person you loved. How can I help you? What can I do for you to make your day a little better?'" 

    She draws on her own experience when dealing with families who have lost loved ones, she says. "Because I've seen so much in my own life, I feel I can genuinely understand the people I talk to. Once you experience things like helping someone transition to death, you can help someone else go through it a little better.

    "I might just be a voice on the phone for many patients, but I try to be a voice of compassion and comfort."  

    'Death is never easy'

    Marilyn's job requires her to be a skilled listener - hearing not only what patients have to say, but also what is not being said, the tone of their voice, any hesitations or incomplete answers. 

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    "It can be difficult to build that trust with patients and their families just over the phone," she says. "It takes patience, wisdom, and empathy. Every time I talk to them, I just think of how I would like to be treated if I were in their position."

    There are times when she and her colleagues get attached to some of the terminally ill patients they work with. There are some who call in every day, especially those who have no one else to talk to.

    "Working in this business, you're always dealing with someone who won't be around for too long, but the passing itself is still tough," she says. "Death is never easy; you don't ever get used to it."  

    Despite the long days and 12-hour weekend shifts, Marilyn can't imagine not doing this type of work.

    "This job is really a beautiful thing. I wouldn't give it up for anything," she says.

    But she does admit that it can take a toll.

    "At the end of the day, I need to de-stress myself and step away a little from the intensity that comes with my job."

    Fitzherbert Henderson, who just celebrated his 102nd birthday, closes his eyes and listens as Charla Burton, an MJHS music therapist, sings to him [Courtesy of MJHS]

    Death may be unavoidable, she says, but it still takes great strength to face it.

    "Where there is life, there's death. Every day, every moment, you never know what you are going to experience ... But you have got to be ready for anything. 

    "We have family members who call us and curse at us - sometimes angry that their pain isn't going away; sometimes angry when they feel their loved one isn't being taken care of 100 percent, and we understand that," she says.

    For Marilyn, facing death so frequently has changed her outlook on life.

    "Every day I wake and I see that light, I say thank you God for another day."

    Follow Mir Ubaid on Twitter  @ mir_ubaid  

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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