During my 3rd year in nursing school for my bachelor’s degree in nursing, I was enrolled as a nurse extern at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City in the summer of 1993. This 9-week experience allowed us to shadow the nurses. I was assigned to the 6th floor, which specialized in bone marrow transplants, lymphoma, and gastrointestinal cancers. It was so heartbreaking to see people on isolation who were post a bone marrow transplant, as it was so touch and go.
One incredible patient who was very ill after his bone marrow transplant was a gem for me. He was a wealthy, midlife executive in a private room with the oddity of a video phone to see and talk to his family and children from out of state. His room was decorated with family photos, a golf-putting strip, golf clubs, inspirational movie posters, fake plants, a lava lamp, and wonderful stereo equipment with dance music always pumping from it. Donning reverse isolation gowns, a mask, and booties for the nurses was such an ordeal to prep as we came in to hang IV meds or change his PICC line dressings, and there he was, wearing shorts and an Aloha shirt and usually flip-flops, clicking or swaying to the beat of music but always lying in bed. He usually engaged us politely in conversation, but some nurses were experts in getting him to open up during our brief encounters.
After my third week of working with him, learning and feeling my way as a novice nurse and following protocols to the T, I looked forward to the brief encounters, as his room was a haven of life compared with the other rooms outside his walls, especially the silence of the other patients. He asked me about my plans for the coming weekend, and I mentioned that I may go to the Jimmy Buffet concert in Long Island. Then I said it was also an issue of cost on a student’s budget. He got up slowly and walked over to his phone and asked how many tickets I wanted as he would call Ticketmaster and order tickets for me right then and there. I was shocked and embarrassed to see him get up and stand, and I hemmed and hawed about it. I felt horrible for mentioning it, as he was a big fan of Jimmy Buffet. He came over to me, with his hands gripping my gowned shoulders, and stressed to never put off anything you wanted to do in life. He candidly said that he now understood how precious and short life is and how we put off the little things, which are the most important things. And we regret doing so much before our time is up. I will never forget the intent of his teaching as he knew the prognosis was grim for him.
I told him that I would try to go, and I did make it to the parking lot of the concert to hear most of it. Close enough was good enough. He did not survive past my externship, and quickly his room was turned over to another person. I still feel his presence when I hear Jimmy Buffet.—Valerie Armstrong, NP, Jacksonville, Fla.
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