Teaching and Being Taught: Lessons Learned by an Oncology Nurse

Karen Arnold-Korzeniowski, BSN, RN
Karen Arnold-Korzeniowski, BSN, RN

A primary role of being a nurse is educating patients, caregivers and colleagues. The job of a nurse can be very task oriented, but whether a nurse realizes it or not, you spend a portion of your day educating your patients. When I am a charge nurse I am called to educate my peers. When holding the Oncology Phone I am called to educate fellow nurses and providers throughout the hospital. I love being a nurse because I am granted the opportunity to teach. Whether it is a simple question regarding a medication, teaching a patient how to care for a central line upon discharge, or being able to provide a patient with valid information regarding their disease process and treatment, I always feel satisfied in my position as a nurse, easing a patient’s anxiety by providing them with knowledge.

Five years ago I admitted a man who was short of breath. Upon having labs drawn by his family doctor, he was told to take himself immediately to the hospital where a room on an oncology unit would be ready for him. He was angry. He was frustrated. Honestly, he was not very nice. He told me he didn’t want to be in the hospital and that he wasn’t really sick. However, a bone marrow biopsy done a few days later with a diagnosis of leukemia proved otherwise. I signed myself up to be his primary nurse.

Loving to teach, and this patient begrudgingly willing to learn, I taught him everything I could about his disease, chemotherapy regimen, medications and so on. He had a very supportive wife and two teenage daughters who immersed themselves in the process to guide him through this hospital admission. After a two month stay in the hospital and two trips to the intensive care unit he was not disease free, but healthy enough to go home. With his wife at his side we reviewed his discharge paperwork. Right before he left he hugged me and thanked me for not only “dealing” with him, but for providing him with the knowledge and emotional support he needed to get through his admission.

He became what we call a “frequent flier.” He was admitted numerous times during the two years that he fought this disease. No matter where he was admitted to I would check up on him. It was one of the few times that I let myself become emotionally attached to a patient, which is not healthy, but in my opinion, unavoidable at times. I got to know him and his family. I knew which colleges his oldest daughter was trying to get into. I knew he never gave up a motorcycle that he had bought before he was married and that it sat in his garage because his wife didn’t like him riding it. I knew that he would watch “Gilmore Girls” reruns with his daughters but that they had always kept it a secret from his wife.

I love to teach patients whatever it is that they need or want to be taught. However, I also love to be taught by my patients. During the two years that I cared for this patient he taught me so much about life. He taught me that in the future to get my one-year-old son to try new foods, I should sit down at the kitchen table and eat those foods with him. He taught me that my husband and I should go on dates without our son, because your spouse needs and deserves attention just as much as your children do. He encouraged me to trust my son in his teenage years and to let him learn lessons on his own, so long as neither he nor someone else would be harmed in the process.

Two years after we first met, he died. He died at home in bed with his wife, daughters and dog with him. I went to his viewing, which was not something I would usually do. However, he was not only my patient he had become my friend. I considered his family my family. The family receiving line was all the way out of the door at the funeral home. By the time I made it up to offer my condolences to his wife and daughters I could no longer hold back tears. I embraced his daughters and the youngest thanked me for taking such great care of her dad. My response to her was my gratitude and honor for having had the opportunity to have been taught so many amazing lessons from her dad.

Being an oncology nurse is a difficult job for so many reasons. Reasons that only another nurse could possibly understand. You watch people at their most vulnerable moments both physically and emotionally. Being a nurse can be the most amazing and rewarding career when you not only find the time to teach, but also to be taught. I am so grateful that I have been granted that opportunity.

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