“Dying Gracefully”


by Betty Long, RN~Waiting outside a friend’s ICU room, I watched the change of shift last Wednesday evening.  Watching the outgoing nurses exchange report with the oncoming shift, I overheard one nurse say, “I’ll see you tomorrow” as she waved goodnight to her colleagues.

Like you, I’ve heard and given that same greeting a thousand times but yet, this night was different.  Six hours earlier, my friend’s children made the difficult decision to withdraw medical care from their mother after she had sustained major injuries in a tragic fall down 12 steps.  Here I was, at her bedside, waiting with her family for her to take her last breath.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Though I know we all say it, I was reminded again that night of how fleeting our health and, ultimately, our lives can be.  My friend, let’s call her Helen, though challenged for many years by diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, was an attentive and compliant patient, a loving mother, and a doting Grandmom. She enjoyed her casino trips and watching the Phillies.

But it wasn’t her diabetes that killed her.  It was the brain injury she sustained in the early morning fall as her head took the brunt of the impact with a marble floor.

Fortunately, she had been very clear with her children about her care and her wishes regarding the withdrawal of that care, an attempt at dying gracefully.  Knowing her grim prognosis, and despite their sadness and grief at suddenly losing their remaining parent, they honored her wishes.  And they never left her side. They talked aloud, told stories, touched her, and had quiet moments with her.

I listened as several ICU nurses came into her room to express their admiration to her children for making the most difficult decision you should ever have to make for someone you love. Those surgical trauma/critical care nurses have surely seen families argue, fuss, deny, prolong, accuse, et al, so when one family moves swiftly and compassionately in unison, I suspect it is a gift to the nurses, too.

Just like the outgoing ICU nurse, I’m sure Helen had said, “I’ll see you tomorrow” the day of her fall.  And though both of them knew that “accidents do happen,” I bet Helen was the only one who had made it clear–both on paper and in words–what she wanted should she have an unrecoverable accident and be unable to decide for herself.

In honor of all of the patients like Helen, I encourage you to make this year the year you move forward on formalizing your healthcare decisions, including a healthcare power of attorney.  Believe me when I tell you, it will be the most thoughtful gift you can leave to those who love you.

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About Betty Long, RN

As a registered nurse working in greater Philadelphia-area hospitals over the past 27 years, Betty Long’s experiences as a nurse and manager proved to her that maneuvering through today’s healthcare system can be daunting, especially when you don’t have someone to help you navigate the system. Care decisions, insurance decisions and coordination of treatment services can overwhelm even the savviest consumer. Those experiences, and other more personal experiences, led Long to launch Guardian Nurses Healthcare Advocates in October 2003. Guardian Nurses provides advocacy services for clients, both private and corporate, all over the United States. The driving mission for its nurse advocates is simple: to act as representatives and advocate for their patients. And since nurse advocates work independently of hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and government agencies, they can be a strong voice for patients in all areas of the healthcare system. Nurse advocates understand healthcare issues from the viewpoint of caring for the patient and of the medical professionals trying to provide care. Nationally, Long’s advocacy work has been featured on The Dr Oz Show and National Public Radio’s Marketplace and Marketplace Money shows and various print publications. www.GuardianNurses.com

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