‘I knew when it was time you would rise to the occasion and take care of her and of us. And you did.’ Hearing that made it all worth it.’: Nurse reflects on how she has to be a nurse, even when it’s for family

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“Since I was a little girl, I always knew I wanted to be a nurse. I’ve been a nurse for 15 years and have taken care of more patients than I can count. Some I will remember forever; some I keep in touch with and some were even family.

When you are a nurse, you are never off duty. You pull over when there is a car wreck to see if you can help. I have climbed inside cars that are on their side to help a patient trapped inside. You respond when you are out in public and someone needs help.

On the way to my gate at the airport I came upon an older woman and her daughter, the daughter was clearly distraught. I asked if I could help and realized that the mom was having a stroke. I asked them to call 911 and stayed and provided care until the medics arrived.

I have provided care to a man who passed out in a restaurant until the medics arrived. I did the Heimlich on my own brother when he started choking on a jolly rancher (I was probably 12 at the time, pre-nurse.) The list goes on and on.

Often nurses have to emotionally distance themselves from their patients, not because you don’t care or you lack compassion, but because if you allowed yourself to become close to or emotionally involved with every patient, you wouldn’t make it through one week. You get phone calls from friends and family about a myriad of medical issues. Anything from kids to injuries to procedures to medication. What I wasn’t prepared for was the toll that using my nursing abilities to take care of family members and friends in an end of life situation would take on me.

I have cared for a friend the night he passed away under hospice care in his home. I will never forget it. I laid on a small couch in his room with his family by his side and gave him medication every 2 hrs. until I saw the change that morning. I called his family in and told them to stay close. He passed away a few minutes later.

I have cared for my grand mom while she was dying from pancreatic cancer and was at home with hospice. I will never forget the panicked call from my mom that my grand mom was making a noise and seemed like she was struggling. I went over and helped reposition her and tried to support the family as much as possible. I saw the change in her that afternoon and called everyone in to be with her. She passed away a few minutes later.

Courtesy Shannon Behnke

My mom’s stepmom, my grandmother, and my granddad both passed away under hospice care in the hospital just shy of a year apart. I was at both of their bedsides, trying to advocate for them, care for them, answer questions of family members and just being there to be a support. It was so hard for my whole family and myself to lose them both inside of a year. I take comfort in the fact that they are together again, reunited.

A year ago, today I was providing care for my mother in law as she was also at home with hospice suffering from metastatic breast cancer. I’ve done it a thousand times before… change the bed, empty the catheter, administer medication, pull a patient up, make decisions about care and medications, give advice and offer solutions.  You try to maintain that distance so you can do what you were trained to do and not allow your emotions to get the best of you so you can continue to do your job. You need to stay strong; you need to be the one they look to, the one with the solutions.

Courtesy Shannon Behnke

The night my mother in law passed away, everyone was a mess. Emotional, tired and grieving that she had been suffering so long. As both my sister in laws were upstairs preparing a meal, I was sitting at my mother in laws beside trying to comfort my husband and father in law. I saw the sign I have seen many times before and sent my niece up to get both my sister in laws. They came down, she was struggling. I tried to administer morphine to ease her struggle. Even after being a nurse for 15 years I wasn’t prepared for how it would feel to be the family member in the nursing role.

The actual passing was horrible, I did my best to reassure my family while trying to comfort my MIL, talk to her and tell her everything was going to be ok. Then she passed. I jumped right into post care. I covered her with a blanket up to her chest and tried to make her look as peaceful as possible, lowered the head of the bed and made sure everyone had tissues and were as close as they wanted to be.

I tried to be a support, answering questions and in some cases speaking as vaguely as I could so I didn’t cause the family anymore trauma. I called the funeral home, waited for them to arrive, helped with rolling and transferring and assisted them until they left. I had everyone go upstairs so they didn’t see the stretcher with the big black bag, something I’ve seen too many times. I called the company who provided the medical equipment, took apart the hospital bed, removed anything from the room that could trigger a memory of her being sick and passing away. We assembled my father in laws cot that he had been sleeping on, replaced furniture in the room so it looked as normal as possible. I removed diapers, wipes, medication and her water cups. Then we sat together for a while, ate dinner and were just there for each other.

I just kept myself in nursing mode so I could make it through the evening, but on the inside, I was incredibly sad. On the way home, the evening just washed over me. I wasn’t ok, she was my mother in law, my friend, my husband’s mother, and my kids’ grandma. She was like the glue that kept the family together. What were we going to do? How would my father in law be? Would he be able to go on?

Carrying the weight on that night by being the nurse, the strong one, was so incredibly difficult. I knew I needed to be strong for my family and kids, but that final night with her affected me deeply. I still don’t think I have truly let it out and mourned the loss completely, after all, I am the nurse. I need to be strong and be that support to the rest of the family. Even though it was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, I wouldn’t go back and change it. My husband said to me later, ‘I knew when it was time you would rise to the occasion and take care of her and of us… and you did.’ Hearing that made it all worth it.

Friends and family remember the medical providers in your family. They will be strong, and they will do their job, but they often suffer in silence so that they can bring you peace. Check on them, ask them how they are doing. They may look ok, but trust me, they probably aren’t.”

Courtesy Shannon Behnke

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Shannon Behnke, 38, of Maryland. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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