I’ve spent some time over the last week thinking about a question I was asked by one of my patients I’ll call “Jolene.” She’s one of my more frail stage IV lung cancer patients and lives with her elderly husband in a multistory house on the side of a hill. They have no children and will be celebrating 40 years of marriage in December. She’s funny and smart, and learned to drive a tractor on their farm when she was nine years old so she could drive her dying father to the hospital during emergencies when she was home alone with him (he subsequently died of emphysema in his early forties).
I visited her in the ward at the end of a long, hard day last week. She was recovering from a pleurodesis the previous day. Half my mind was on her and how she and her husband would cope when she was discharged. The other half was on the charting I still needed to do before clocking out. I didn’t realize I was frowning when I came into her room, but she did. When I stopped next to the bed, Jolene reached out one thin hand from under the blanket, her bruised arm trembling with the effort, and placed her warm hand gently on my forearm. She wrapped her fingers around my arm and smiling up at me she said, “I’m okay, but tell me, how are you dear? Who’s taking care of you?”
Her question stopped me in my tracks. Jolene waited, watching me with her tired, blue eyes. I hesitated a moment, trying to decide if I should use my standard reply of “I’m fine, thanks,” or tell her the truth — that it had been a long, hard day and I was frankly exhausted. Jolene nodded at me before I could say a word and said, “Say no more. I can see it in your face.” I took a deep breath, and instead of flying in and out in five minutes as I had planned, I pulled up the chair next to her bed and sat down.
For the next 20 minutes, Jolene cared for me. I stopped thinking about the clock and what I still needed to do. Jolene reminded me of something I know, but forget way too often. She reminded me we nurses often have the hardest time caring for ourselves. “Look at Jesus” she said. “Look how He used the proverb ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ Why would He use that picture of a doctor who needs to heal himself? Because He knows you’re all just way too busy caring for others to take care of yourselves.”
In her article “Recognizing Caregiver Fatigue,” cancer survivor Katie Brown writes about fatigue which loved ones of cancer patients can experience. Medical providers caring for the sick can experience this too, although we don’t like to admit it. Brown writes, “Caregiver fatigue and burnout are also common, but few caregivers talk about it openly. It’s difficult to admit that you may be at your limit.”
After I left Jolene, I drove home. Instead of rushing to catch up with a load of washing, I changed into sneakers and sweatpants. Down by the river I stopped to watch the sun reflecting off the water and noted leaves changing from yellow to gold. I listened to ducks overhead while I sat doing nothing. I was present, for just an hour, but it did me good. The next morning I checked my calendar and booked a Friday off in the next few weeks. I plan to take a long weekend on my own with just a book and my running clothes. Then I called Jolene to check in. I told her I had been busy healing myself. She laughed and told me it was about time. She reminded me she needing me to be strong; we still have a way to journey together.