Dying Nurse Teaches Until the End

Posted on January 15, 2013 by

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We were struck by a recent New York Times article about Martha Keochareon, a nurse dying from pancreatic cancer, who invited students from her alma mater to her bedside:

For Ms. Keochareon, this was a chance to teach something about the profession she had found late and embraced — she became a nurse at 40, after raising her daughter and working for years on a factory floor.

“When I was a nurse, it seemed like most of the other nurses were never too happy having a student to teach,” she said, lying in her bedroom lined with pictures of relatives, friends, and herself in healthier times. “I loved it.”

The nurses in training, too, found great benefit to Keochareon’s kindness:

When the new semester starts this month, Ms. Santiago and Ms. Elliot will return to more conventional coursework: a pharmacology class, for example, and rotations in maternity and acute care. But they will also present to their classmates what they learned in the little house in South Hadley. Ms. Santiago said she would remember Ms. Keochareon “until the day that I die” — especially her resolve.

“Who in her situation, to be like that, would call up and say, ‘Hey, I want to teach a student about my cancer?’” she said.

There’s so much to learn as a new nurse, and the medical community often neglects training in end-of-life care. In a 2009 piece, also at the Times, nurse Theresa Brown describes the feeling of being alone with a dying patient like a “fish out of water” — uncertain, difficult, even scary. The range of training for these important end-of-life moments often spans from inadequate, like Brown’s, to much more holistic, like Keochareon’s.

It’s heartening to see nurses get more recognition for the important role they play in healthcare, especially at the end of life. For more on the journey to becoming a nurse, from first experiences with death to first births, check out our upcoming collection, “I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out,” available this March.

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