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Painful Truth

Posted 4/13/2014

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  Sometimes we don't want to know. Sometimes it is easier and less painful to not ask. Sometimes the doctor is relieved that we feel that way. The topic, of course, is dying or prognosis or "how long do I have?". Some of us want the numbers or the best guess and plenty of us would prefer not to hear those specifics. Not knowing, not wanting to know, brings its' balm, but also its' difficulties. There may be things that really need to be attended to, fences that need mending, relationships that need speaking, farewells that should be said. It is quite distressing to me that, not so infrequently, I have been the first person to speak the hard truth. Too often the patient and the family and the doctor seem locked into an intricate dance that avoids the central truth. At some of those times, with someone whom I know well, the question is posed to me: "Am I dying?".

  This is a prelude to a difficult-to-read, but really important essay by Theresa Brown, an oncology nurse who writes periodic thoughtful pieces for the New York Times. Her topic is a little different; she describes a most painful situation of a young woman dying after a transplant and angry relatives and a diffuse sense of misunderstanding and grief and anger and frustration and desperation. What is clear, and what she beautifully articulates, is the intense need for honesty with a heart.

  Here is the start and a link to read more:

Providing the Balm of Truth

“What if we gave her some aloe vera gel?”

The question was from a thin woman, and though her query came out of desperation, her face was pinched with fury. She was a relative of the patient in the room, a young woman who was dying of an infection.

That’s where gel, which the relative embraced as an herbal remedy, came in. It fell to me, the nurse, to explain why aloe vera could not cure the infection, could not save this patient’s life. But what I was really doing was something we often fail to do in hospitals: facing the anger and fear that accompany impending death.


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