Thursday, January 29, 2009

Staff Coping With Terminal Illness

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By Justin Engleka, MSN, CRNP, CHPN
Vol 1, No. 9 - April 2002
(Original PDF)

Miss C. is a 28-year-old female with a history of a spinal cord tumor with metastasis to the brain. She was admitted to the hospital for further management of related complications. She had suffered with multiple neurological complications, including paraplegia since 1997. She had endured many procedures, surgeries, treatments, and hospitalizations prior to the Palliative Care Team’s meeting with her on this admission. Her disease had become more extensive. She had recently received chemotherapy, and developed complications likely related to this. When she arrived at the hospital, it was determined that she had suffered an intraventricular hemorrhage. For this reason, she was intubated and placed on the ventilator.

During her hospital stay, she had multiple complicated medical issues: the intraventricular hemorrhage, quadriplegia, infection, hypotension, and delirium. Communication with this patient was difficult and painstaking, but not impossible. Behavioral medicine was recruited to assist with communication efforts and help the family with coping techniques. The Palliative Care Team met with the patient and her family daily to assist them in setting the goals of care. The primary service was an integral part of the communication process. During the previous years of cancer treatments, Miss C. had developed very close bonds with this staff.

Miss C. began to express concerns about the therapies she was receiving. After long, detailed conversations with her, we recommended that some limits be placed on medical interventions such as resuscitation, and blood pressure support. The patient and family agreed. She was successfully discharged to a ventilator facility closer to her family.


“Why are you afraid? I am the one who is dying…
But please believe me, if you care, you can’t go wrong…
Death may get to be routine to you, but it is new to me.”

Dealing with the impending death of a patient is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks that a nurse or physician can encounter. For staff who deal with these types of issues on a day-to-day basis, it can become even more distressing. Traditionally, the intensive care units care for the most critically ill patients. Unfortunately, death becomes an inevitable part of the experience. How each staff member deals with that grief and sorrow varies greatly. It is well acknowledged that the death of a loved one under any circumstance is a tremendous loss for that family. Little is written or spoken about the grief and coping of staff who deal with dying patients on a daily basis. This case illustrates that not all patients who die in the hospital are elderly, frail patients who have lived a full life. Understandably, nurses, doctors, and staff would view this case in a different light. For many of us, we see a young, 28-year-old girl who reminds us of our wives, our sisters, our daughters, or ourselves. 28-year-old women are not supposed to die.

This case also reminds us that we cannot endure the stress and grief alone. While it is important to maintain consistent contact with our patients, we also need to know our limits. Traditionally, nurses are caretakers and nurturers. They typically “vent” about these types of cases with their colleagues and managers. It is also nice to know that there are services within our system for patients, families, and staff. Staff should know that they need to take care of themselves, too. Services like social work, behavioral medicine, palliative care, clergy, and family support services are readily available to consult with staff members about their concerns and grief.

1. Reimer, J.C., Davies, B., & Martens, N. (1991) Palliative Care: The nurse’s role in helping families through the transition of “fading away.” Cancer Nursing, 14(6), 321-327. Vachon, M.L.S.,

2. The stress of professional caregivers in Doyle, D. et al eds. Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine, New York, Oxford University Press 1998, 919-929.
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