Death Doulas have also been called midwives of the soul. They help provide support and services to individuals and loved ones at the end of life. Have you ever wondered what it might be like to help others transition? Today, hear an account directly from Death Doula and new contributor, Nurse Zan, in her first NEA post.
Sometimes I meet the most profound people (okay a lot of times). But I am really lucky because through my work I get to meet people in their most vulnerable state of being. Some emotions are good, some productive and some are not helpful at all. Patients and family members, in hospice, have so many different emotions. Most of the time the people and emotions I encounter are genuine and beautiful.
There was a man named Ronnie who had cancer. He was a young 48 years old, and handsome. His wife, Marg, was gorgeous and tearful when I entered their home. You see, this young man had been working and battling cancer for the past several months. His weakness was unbearable and his cancer was not responding to the treatments. Cancer treatments are some of the most brutal and violent treatments any human body can ever endure. The point of chemotherapy is to attack and kill every fast growing and operating cell in your body in order to maybe also kill the bad ones, aka; cancer, along the way. Life is really unfair.
So, cancer sucks, and chemo is worse. But, Ronnie was awesome. He had two adult children who loved him dearly, a beautiful wife, and a 92 year old mother-in-law who also lived in the home and drove a red convertible (I want to grow up and be her!). I first met Ronnie in his bonus room "man cave" filled with pictures of his family and Notre Dame paraphernalia, his favorite college football team. We talked and I assessed that Ronnie was not doing well and growing weaker daily. His son was to be married soon and Ronnie did not want to miss the wedding. My goal was for him to be comfortable and see his son marry his handsome husband. So, I ordered Ronnie a hospital bed, some oxygen, a bedside commode and a few other things. My hope was that he would be able to relax while surrounded by family and friends.
But back to Notre Dame. I asked Ronnie what he thinks about Notre Dame and he lights up! He loved to talk any and everything Notre Dame, especially football. I mentioned to Marg, Ronnie's wife, when I was leaving that I knew someone at Notre Dame and would it be okay if I told them about Ronnie and asked them to write him a letter. Ronnie did not know that my family happened to be friends with CJ Sanders who was a wide receiver for Notre Dame.
Some time back CJ was a cute little boy and my mom, a talent agent, got him hired to play young Ray in the Ray Charles movie (you know the one where he gets blinded and starts playing the piano and all). So I called Stacie, CJ’s mom, and told her that I had a patient who was not doing well. "He is a HUGE Notre Dame fan," I explained "and would CJ be able to write and mail him a letter?" Of course Stacie was happy to help. I talked with CJ and rather than writing a letter, he offered to FaceTime with Ronnie--and other members of the Notre Dame football team from the locker room!! SHUT YOUR FACE! I was so jazzed I called Marg to set up a secret time for this FaceTime extravaganza to surprise Ronnie. It was all set! The magic was to happen on a Thursday at 10am.
The day before, Marg called to tell me Ronnie had taken a turn for the worse. He had a restless night and Tuesday when I saw him he was really struggling to get his breathing and anxiety under control. He was using oxygen and Ativan (a drug like Xanax) to help him relax and take things slow. He was declining but under control. Tuesday night he and Marg had a meeting with an attorney to wrap up all legal matters. They even held a small wedding in the home for his son and son-in-law. Usually when people do all of these type of things on their checklist they check out pretty quickly following the last check.
"Checkmate!" I felt, "Not just yet!"
But when I headed over to the house on Wednesday morning, I knew in my heart this was Ronnie’s last day. No, I am not psychic, I just know. It's a hospice nurse/midwife-of-the-soul thing.
I called CJ at Notre Dame and told him that Ronnie was not doing well and it might be our only chance to FaceTime today. When I arrived Marg escorted me to see her sweet husband. We talked about how people die and what this might look like for them. I talked with Ronnie about any pain he was having and he was definitely in pain which was being managed with narcotics. We talked about allowing me to place a catheter so he would not have to worry about peeing on himself if he is too weak to stand, which he was, and he agreed. Marg was tearful and other family members were present and in and out during my visit.
Near the end of my time, I ask Marg to get her iPad for the FaceTime call. Ronnie did his very best to sit up and Marg put on his Notre Dame hat, and in his hands he held an autographed football with a picture of Notre Dame football players on it.
Wondering if the rescheduled call would happen a day early or not, CJ promptly called in from the locker room, along with about six or so other Notre Dame teammates. I cannot recall the exact conversation but I'll never forget how Ronnie perked up so brightly that you would not know he was actively dying. Ronnie’s face lit up from ear to ear and he tried his best to be strong and talk. I have never seen a brighter smile. Touchdown!! I have a mental photograph of this very moment, that I will never erase. It was beautiful to see the joy and excitement a FaceTime call could bring him. And the kindness and humanity that CJ and his teammates gave to this fan.
After the call Ronnie was joyful and exhausted. He had expended all the energy he had left on the call. Everyone in the family expressed gratitude for the experience.
That evening around 8pm Ronnie took his last breath. But what a day. I learned that CJ spoke with Marg after Ronnie’s death and mailed Notre Dame swag to her for Ronnie to be buried in. Marg also made the most magnificent arrangement for the cemetery, it was all navy blue and gold with Notre Dame ribbon woven in beautifully.
I would say that this death was beautiful, at home, surrounded by the people that meant the most to the man that died. It is a great honor to be a part of any death.
And what a beautiful team effort on the part of all humans involved. CJ is an exceptional guy and a generous young man. I think it speaks volumes to the character of such a young man. He and I have not spoken about this experience since it happened but I feel like we both understood what was asked of us and we completed the job. As humans this is what we are here to do! Show up for one another and perform as a team! We are all here on one human experience and we cannot do it alone. In this life and in the afterlife we are all one collective. I had a personal experience once that led me to believe that the entire planet and all the living beings on it are connected. We all must take a deep breath and pour into one another. That is the only way we will continue, if we choose any other way the experience is shortened and we will not be content.
Zan Phillips, aka Nurse Zan, is a Nashville native, Death Doula, Registered Nurse and a momma of two. As a previous ICU and hospice nurse, she developed a strong love for humankind and healing. As a Death Doula, she performs a large variety of services, including but not limited to creating death plans, and providing spiritual, psychological, and social support before and just after death. Much like in birth, death can be very personal for the individual. She believes each of us are on an intense journey through life and we can all use the gift of wellness and support along the way. Find her online at nursezan.com and on Instagram @nurse_zan.
Note: All names have been changed in the article above to preserve privacy.