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Giving bad news is an essential experience

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Giving a patient bad news is a hateful duty for a nursing student but you do learn a lot from this process. During my training, I helped to care for 81-year-old, Olive Wakeham, whose lifelong friend Alice regularly came to visit her in hospital.

Then one morning Alice’s niece Jennie arrived, took me part-way up the corridor and told me through red, swollen eyes that Alice had died suddenly of a heart attack.

‘She passed away in her sleep,’ she sobbed. ‘I came to tell Olive myself but when I peeped into the ward just now, I just couldn’t do it.

‘She’ll be heartbroken. They just lived for one another.

‘I’ve no right to ask but I know Olive likes you. Could you tell her for me?’

I hesitated then nodded. But how do you tell a sick old lady that her best friend has just died? I trudged back to the ward and notified the sister.

As I approached Olive’s bed, she looked up and gave me a strange, long, knowing look. Before I could speak, she said: ‘Hello, dear. Have you come to give me bad news?’

Seeing me frown, she explained: ‘I spotted Jennie a few minutes ago and sensed something was wrong. Is it Alice?’

I swallowed and said: ‘I’m so sorry, Olive. Alice passed away in her sleep last night.’

She winced as if in pain but then composed herself and fell silent for a long moment. I could not conjure up any words to comfort her and just stood by her bedside feeling helpless.

‘Ah well,’ she said finally, ‘I’m glad that she went first. ‘That will spare her the loneliness of being without me.’

Moments later, she gave me a little sad smile and dropped off to sleep. Just like that.

I had received my first lesson of a patient losing a loved one with dignity.

Lesley McHarg is a third-year nursing student in Scotland

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