Hospice Nurse Janet Mitchell isn’t afraid to get personal
I’m not the Grim Reaper.
What wasn’t the reason you became a hospice nurse?
I definitely didn’t decide to go into hospice nursing to get rich. At least, not in the monetary sense!
However, hospice patients and their family and friends have given me wealth in totally unexpected ways, the kind of wealth that cannot be spent and that never runs out.
How wouldn’t you describe your job?
Contrary to popular belief, hospice does not hasten death. As a hospice nurse, I simply do my best to make the dying process a less painful, less lonely experience for the patient and family and friends.
My job is not routine in any sense of the word. There is no such thing as a “routine” hospice patient. Every person’s life is unique, so is each death.
I never know what to expect when I meet a new patient: getting to know each new patient is like opening up a bright, shiny new package, full of all kinds of surprises and insights which only that person can bring to life.
I’ve never met anyone that I didn’t like, at least not after getting to know them. There are clinical aspects to my job, but my job isn’t primarily clinical; it’s as personal and as intimate as it gets!
A person who is in the process of dying opens up with stunningly brave honesty and wisdom. I’ve learned more from hospice patients than I’ve learned, collectively, in all of my life outside of that.
When don’t you feel like going to work?
Well, I’ve been out of work for a while with some major medical issues of my own. So, I’ll answer this from the perspective of when I was able to work.
It’s hard to think of a time when I didn’t feel like going to work, because no matter how lousy I might have been feeling, physically or emotionally, I found that spending time with people who were dying had a way of putting things into sharp and clear perspective for me.
I might have had an ache or a pain, or I might have been dealing with something emotionally difficult, but it was nothing compared to what my patients were dealing with. My patients reminded me that everything is relative.
It’s all a matter of perspective. My patients animate that old saying: “Walk a mile in my shoes.”
So, no matter how badly I might have been feeling at the beginning of the day, I always felt better and uplifted by the end of the day, because my patients had reminded me to put things into perspective, to focus on what I have, not on what I don’t have.
The same is true now, as I’m dealing with my own physical limitations: there is lots that I can do, with a few temporary limitations. “Temporary” is the key.
What sorts of people shouldn’t work in pallative care?
A person who wants to get rich shouldn’t go into palliative care. A person who needs to have control shouldn’t go into palliative care. A person who wants predictability shouldn’t go into palliative care. A person who is uncomfortable touching emotions shouldn’t go into palliative care.
What isn’t important to most dying people?
I’ve never heard any hospice patient say, “I should have worked more overtime, I should have spent less time with my family, I wish I’d made more money, I wish I’d worn more designer clothes, I should have gotten more degrees, I wish I’d been thinner, I wish I’d lived in a bigger house, I wish I’d gone to church more often.”
Probably the most frequent statement I have heard from hospice patients is, “I wish I’d spent more time with my family and friends.”
You know the bumper sticker that says something to the effect that whoever dies with the most toys, wins? Well, the hospice patients I’ve known would probably change that to something like: those who die, having loved and being loved, win.
Was there one patient in particular you won’t ever, ever forget?
Because every patient I’ve known has been so unique, I can’t think of one in particular that I’ll never forget— I remember so many, with so much affection and admiration and awe.
However, I will never forget the collective similarities of so many. In their process of dying, a majority have shared with me that they’ve seen people who’ve already died, and they have had conversations with them.
As death became imminent, not one single hospice patient has ever reported to me that they feared dying; quite the opposite, most have said they were ready, and that there were people there waiting to escort them on when the time came to die.
I’ve listened so often as patients recounted seeing colors that were indescribable, colors for which we have no words, but that are so brilliantly beautiful they were brought to tears.
I’ve heard there are musical tones that penetrate the being and that carry with them character. Both the colors and the music, I’ve been told, communicate.
And finally, I’ve been told that there is a light that is pure love, and when my patients have tried to describe this light, they cannot.
They tell me it is like going home, like the most amazing unconditional acceptance of all that is, that it conveys oneness and a complete connectedness of everything.
I never try to interpret what my hospice patients tell me, and I certainly don’t discount it. It is amazing to me that so many people, from all cultures and faiths and world views, tell me so much that is so similar at the end of life!
All of my patients have taught me a wealth of things. My patients have given me priceless gifts, far more abundant and precious than anything I ever could have given to them.
Because of my hospice patients, I live a fuller life, with not a single shred of fear of death.
To read more about Janet’s work in hospice care and other life experiences, check out her blog Thoughts to Mull