“I can’t sleep. I feel shaky. Will you walk with me if you have time?” she asked around 2 a.m.
“Of course. Let’s take a walk,” I replied.
Andrea asked this often when I was working night shift. I’m unsure if she actually felt unsteady in the beginning. She certainly appeared to walk safely on her own. Not only was she young and able, she also had the IV pole acting as a crutch to guide her. I am not sure she needed a chaperone but I am sure she wanted the company. Our nightly walks became routine. Andrea never wanted to impose always adding, “if you have time” or “when you get all your other work done”. It was never an imposition. It was a privilege.
Andrea, her IV pole and I would stroll around the otherwise quiet unit making small talk. She would tell me of her hopes of moving across country to be closer to her brother. I would tell her what it was like growing up in Philadelphia. I would listen to her talk passionately about her faith and her cancer journey. She talked about the hard parts and how, even though she didn’t understand it, she trusted that it was all part of something bigger.
As Andrea’s cancer progressed, our walks grew shorter. We went from circling the unit two to three times a night, to walking up and down the hall once, to barely making it out of the room before Andrea needed to stop and rest. Andrea was getting weaker, the cancer was growing and the chemo wasn’t working.
Soon, Andrea was confined to her bed. Her medication kept her groggy and in and out of sleep. Since we were no longer able to walk the halls, we spent a lot of time sitting at the bedside watching movies. Andrea usually dozed off within the first 10 minutes but when she woke back up she would always point to the TV and say “oh this is a good part.”
One night I came onto my shift and discovered that Andrea was going to be discharged to home hospice. When I went into her room to say hello and tell her I’d be her nurse for the night, she once again asked if I would watch a movie with her—once I was done with all my other patients, of course.
We were about 30 minutes into the movie when I heard Andrea’s small voice.
“I’m going to keep fighting, you know. Even though I’m leaving on hospice, I’m not giving up. I just think I need to be home right now—on my own terms.”
At this point, I was glad the room was dark because I was holding back tears.
“God has a plan for me” she continued. “And I have faith in him, but I’m going to fight too.”
Before I left for my shift the next morning, I sat with Andrea a while longer. She continued to speak of her faith. She wanted to show me a program she downloaded on her phone that displayed famous quotes, poems and bible verses based on specific emotions someone might be feeling. She also provided me with some literature about faith. She wanted to share these tools with me so that I could help others.
“You can show these to your other patients too,” she offered. Andrea was eager to share her faith with others. She wanted to make sure that even though she was currently quite helpless, she could still find a way to support someone else.
Andrea and I took a selfie, said our “see you laters” (because Andrea said this wasn’t goodbye) and we parted ways.
Unfortunately, this was the last time I saw Andrea. Less than one month later, she died. I was sad, angry and frustrated. This young girl’s faith and drive were so strong and yet she still lost the fight. It wasn’t fair. I started replaying my moments with Andrea trying to hold on to her spirit and perhaps find some comfort. It was while I was using the program she showed me that I stumbled upon the poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, by William Wordsworth:
“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death…”
While I think Wordsworth was writing about nature, it helped me realize that maybe Andrea did live on—she didn’t necessarily lose the fight. Her faith was so important to her and vital to her journey. Faith is a complete trust regardless of the situation. Having faith when things go your way is easy. Knowing that Andrea’s journey was anything but easy proves her faith ran deep. Out of her suffering, she found splendor. Instead of succumbing to grief, she chose to remain steadfast in her beliefs and even try and share her spirit with others.
Often, I find myself thinking back to when Andrea and I first started taking our nightly strolls. I imagine what I would tell Andrea if I had a chance to walk with her one more time. I would tell her how strong she was. I would tell her how her faith and courage inspired me. I would tell her what a huge heart she had and that I was honored to have known her. I’d want her to know that because of her, I try to introduce hope and conviction when I care for my patients. I’d admit that I think of her often when I begin to lose faith myself and I’d thank her for that.
Andrea didn’t have any reason to keep the faith; but it was faith that kept her encouraged until the end, even when the outlook was bleak. Although I wasn’t there when she passed, I am confident that Andrea’s faith allowed her peace in her final moments. If her faith and strength could inspire me in the short time that I knew her, I know that she must have inspired many before me. If we all share a piece of that inspiration, her message of faith, strength and hope may continue to look through death.
(The name used in this blog has been changed to protect the privacy of the patient and the patient’s family.)
Originally from Philadelphia, Danielle worked at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for one short, but meaningful year before becoming a travel nurse and moving to the West Coast. She has been working in San Diego for the last 3 years in medical-oncology and also currently serves as the secretary for the San Diego Oncology Nursing Society. She currently works at Kaiser Permanente, Zion Medical Center. Armed with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Scranton and a BSN from Thomas Jefferson University, Danielle is always eager to combine her passion for writing and oncology nursing whenever she can.