“What do you want? I don’t want any more people poking at me. Go away!”  The words stung, but I managed to say in a calm, quiet voice, “I’m not a nurse. I’m a volunteer and I just wanted to see if there was anything I could do for you.”  “Yeah! You can *$#!’ well leave me alone!” Respecting the patient’s wishes as I was taught I turned and walked away, but I was shocked by her harsh response and even a little angry.

Since beginning my hospice work five years ago, this was one of the few times I’d truly been upset by a patient. Intellectually, I knew her mood was understandable – she was dying of cancer – but emotionally I still found it hard to deal with. All I wanted to do was help. The nurses told me not to concern myself – she was like that with everyone, but I decided to try again later anyway; maybe after lunch she’d be feeling better. Unfortunately, I received the same blast of invective then.

I’d experienced anger from patients before. There are always a few who are curmudgeonly or cranky by nature; people who are suffering or depressed are not going to be at their best. Surprisingly though, the past few years has shown me that most dying people are approachable and usually appreciate our efforts to comfort and support. I have nothing but admiration for their courage. However she was different; for some reason she pushed my buttons, so I began to avoid her.

Over the next few weeks, whenever I was on shift, I would sometimes see her in the hallways in her wheelchair, or out in the garden smoking. With her booming voice, she always seemed to be in command of her situation and of others. Occasionally, I caught her yelling at the nurses in her colorful language; they ignored her vitriol, did their job and left as quickly as possible. Family members came in from time to time and I would pop my nose in to say hello and ask whether anyone needed anything. I thought I’d be less threatening with her family present and I certainly didn’t want to upset her again. To be truthful, I didn’t want to feel the brunt of her wrath again either.

One day, after a couple of months had passed, the nurses asked me if I felt comfortable enough to assist them with a patient. They needed an extra pair of hands to provide patient support while they inserted a catheter. “Yes, of course”, I said, eager to help in any way. But, when I followed them into the room, I began to feel anxious.

She had been bedridden for the past week as her cancer progressed. Her face was gaunt and pale, with dark circles under her eyes, now dulled with pain. The brightly coloured turban she wore to cover her baldness was awkwardly askew. I knew instinctively she was afraid. The nurses began their work, while I held her hands. Even two expertly trained medical staff seemed to have difficulty adjusting the catheter properly and she cried out in pain several times, squeezing my hands tightly. I spoke softly to her, letting her know it would soon be over. My heart broke as her eyes pleaded with me. Please, she seemed to say, make it stop.

Eventually the deed was done; the nurses gave her a sedative and we left her to rest. Close to tears, I went on to visit another patient down the hall, but my experience didn’t leave me. I was full of guilt for the way I’d judged and avoided her, as if I had been picking and choosing who deserved my compassion and who didn’t. It had been difficult seeing her in pain and helpless, her dignity shattered. She was losing the battle for life and she knew it. Her inner strength had kept her alive far longer than most.

She had allowed me to witness part of her final journey that day, and by so doing changed much of my thinking about humanity and my own assumptions. I try harder now to be more non-judgmental. As human beings, I know we are all connected and deserving of love and respect, no matter what our personality is reflecting to the outside world.

When her time finally came, I wasn’t there, but I mourned her when I heard. She had affected me greatly; she’d been a catalyst for change and I will remember her always.

Wendy Francis

Hospice Residence Volunteer