It’s raining. There is a gale-force wind and my daughter and I are sitting staring out of the window wondering what to do.
‘We could go to the pier and play dolphin derby?’ she suggests. ‘Is that wise given the weather?’ I say. She looks at me as if to say ‘I’m not meant to be wise yet dad, that’s mum’s job’ and says ‘we’d be the only people there, we’re bound to win.’
Later I’m looking at papers reading health-related stories. ‘What you doing?’ she asks. ‘Looking for something interesting to write about,’ I say, to which she replies: ‘Write about magic dragons dad, everyone loves magic dragons.’ And of course they do but do magic dragons resonate for the modern nurse?
Well, this is what I’m really thinking about – there is a college professor in the US called Randy Pausch. He’s 47 and dying of pancreatic cancer. Shortly after being told this news he was due to give a lecture – ironically called ‘My last lecture’ – where invited guests reflect on life’s lessons.
Randy began by announcing this would, indeed, be his last lecture because he was dying, and he talked for 90 minutes about the joy of life. He talked about love, his family and going to the fair and winning toys in the US equivalent of the dolphin derby. He finished by saying ‘actually this lecture is not for you, it’s for my kids’.
The lecture was filmed, word spread and Randy signed a £3.2m publishing deal to turn the lecture into a book. The money will buy his family a house. His kids are all under 6, he doesn’t think they will remember him. Managing that, knowing he won’t guide them into adulthood and that whatever words he can find now are all they will have of him, must be really painful.
I don’t know if it’s appropriate to be reflecting on the impending death of a stranger here. The last thing we need is to get all Little House on the Prairie. And anyway, nurses are likely to be hardened to the tragedies of life, given their regular exposure to them. But I was thinking on the way to the pier, is there anything more important, really, than what is happening to Professor Pausch and his family?
I’ve read a lot lately about the science of nursing and about guidelines, pathways, extended roles. And I’m struck by the fact that we don’t have the language or the confidence to remind the world – or ourselves – that being with people and their families, caring for them and being present in the face of overwhelming pain or despair is, or should be, what nurses are for.
Nobody has that at the heart of their everyday work the way nurses do. It is unique. Talking about it may be uncomfortable, embarrassing, even a bit maudlin. But not talking about it, not finding the words to acknowledge the overwhelming value of life and the deep sadness of loss, is an awfully big oversight isn’t it?