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The Box

During the time that I was a visit nurse, I did a fair amount of death visits.  That’s when the family would call and say the patient had died, then I was to go out and confirm – that is, listen to heart and lungs and confirm that the person had in fact died.

We then helped clean the body and call the mortuary for pick up.  There were the usual pick ups for a traditional funeral.  There were lots of pick ups for an organization that provides cremation services.  There were even a couple of people that donated their bodies to science – one had a rare condition that he and the family wanted studied further after his death and one or two others were for general donation.

No one (that I visited) requested any “green burials.”  I was a pretty big fan of Six Feet Under when it was on HBO (and still am – I consider the last several minutes of the series finale the best thing TV has ever aired) and they portrayed these green burials a couple of times toward the end of the series.  I am very interested in learning more about these types of burials so you can certainly expect a post or two about them in the future.

In my relatively short time doing death visits, one visit stands out from all the rest.  I arrived in the late evening to the patient’s home.  It was very unusual in that the only person there was the patient’s husband.  No other family at all.  My previous experience had been with patients who were surrounded by family members – either at the time they died, or certainly by the time I arrived to confirm.  But this time it was just one person, just him.   Since I didn’t have any other calls at the time I spent some time talking to him about his wife.

At one point he said, “Here, let me show you something” and turned on the light for the backyard.  I was a bit startled to see a casket out there – a plain pine casket.  No shiny polished dark wood trimmed with brass fittings.  Just a casket-shaped box.  Then he told me they’d already had a little mini-funeral for her while she was alive!  Everyone had written something and signed the box.  The plan was to cremate her in it, surrounded by loving words.

I thought that was so clever and so sweet.

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True Hospice Story **

I parked my white Prius in the gravel driveway and looked around.  “Since when are there cornfields in this area of California?” I wondered.

I walked up to the faded and windblown farmhouse and knocked on the screen door.  There was no immediate answer so I took a moment to look around.  It was beautiful out here.  Quiet.  It was late afternoon, the sun was shining, there was a nice breeze.  I knocked again.

A heavyset woman in a dingy white nightgown came and peered at me through the screen door.  “Hi, I’m Gina, here from hospice?”  She nodded and opened the door.

I followed the woman into the living room.  Despite there being a large front window, the curtains were closed, so there was very little daylight coming through them.  The room was small and dim.  I could make out a hospital bed and when my eyes got used to the dark, saw an elderly woman laying in it.

The woman in the bed had wet, ragged respirations.  “You told the triage nurse she’s been doing this all day?” I asked the woman who had let me in.  She wearily looked at me and nodded.  “Do you have any of the medicine left?”  She shook her head no.  I looked back to the woman in the bed, …. what the heck?  She was now laying on her stomach, her back bare.  How did she do that?

I was a little confused, but got back to the issue at hand.  “She definitely needs the medicine.  How long has it been since she took any?”  The woman shrugged.  “Okay,” I said, “I can call some medicine in.  Are you able to pick it up in town at the pharmacy?”  Before the woman could respond, a man appeared in the doorway.  He said, “Oh yeah, we can pick it up.  We have a whole bunch of errands to run.  So you’ll stay here with her” – he jerked his thumb towards the woman in the bed – “and we’ll just take your car.  Be back soon.”  He smiled sort of eerily.


“Well, actually, sir, I can’t just stay here with her; I have other visits to make.  And you can’t take my car….”  I instinctively glanced out the front window to look at my car parked in the driveway.  Hadn’t the curtains just been closed?  Well, now they were open and I could see the car just fine – enough, in fact, to notice that the door to the gas tank was open.

“Well you’re the nurse, and you need to stay with her.  And we need to get that medicine.  So yeah, you’ll stay here and we’ll just be gone for a little bit.”

I started towards the door.  “No, that isn’t going to hap-” At that moment, a teenaged boy came into the room grinning from ear to ear.

“Hey thanks for the gas, lady.  The tank in my car has been empty for MONTHS.  Now I can leave!!”

I’m not sure what happened next, but the next thing I knew, I was speeding down the road in my white Prius, gas light blinking, thinking that I was going to be leaving one heck of a voicemail for the team soon…

** In that it’s true that I really dreamt it :)  I guess this is the new hospice nurse’s version of an anxiety dream?  Instead of merely dreaming about showing up at a patient’s house without supplies, I dream about almost having my car accosted by the patient’s family!

I’ve been at this new job for a month so far.  It’s going pretty well.  I’m almost off orientation, actually.  It’s a much different world and it’s taken some getting used to.  I abhor being the new girl and not knowing things, you know?  I don’t know how traveling nurses do it, actually.   You have to figure out new computer systems, new paperwork, the way each doctor likes to have things done.  About half of our patients are in their homes, and half are in facilities.  And each facility has to have things done in their own way, so it’s a lot to learn.  I’m looking forward to getting more comfortable with the nuts & bolts.

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  • profileI am Gina. I have been a nurse for 15 years, first in med/surg, then CVICU, inpatient dialysis, CCU and now hospice. This blog is about my experiences as a nurse, and the experiences of others in the healthcare system - patients, nurses, doctors, paramedics. We all have stories!

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