THE YOUNG MAN had been in the burn unit for weeks, fighting a
battle all the nurses knew he had to lose.
Burned over 90 percent of his body, he bore the painful
treatments without complaining. The doctors spoke of his courage as
something special, and the nurses would sometimes call in on their
days off to find out how he was doing.
And when he died one bleak midnight, one of the nurses began to
The family doctor, who happened to be there with another
patient, was livid with anger.
"Leave us!" he told the sobbing nurse. "Don't come back until
you can behave like a professional."
It's easy to forget, when we're flat on our backs and in pain,
that health professionals suffer, too. In our hope that doctors and
nurses can work miracles, we forget that they're human beings.
We forget how often they must say "goodbye."
One reminder of this fact came from Sallie M. Herrle and Bunnie
Robinson, nurse supervisors who wrote in Nursing Management about
the "turmoil" in a cancer-ward staff when a popular patient died.
Herrle and Robinson say nurses who work with a lot of dying
patients "are taught in school to give emotional support to
patients and their families, but more often it is the nurse who
Patient G was a cooperative and genial patient with a devoted
wife and two young children - "never demanding, always a pleasure
to work with."
As it became clear that Patient G was dying, the nurses' grief
showed up in such symptoms as "irritability, argumentativeness,
disinterest in the job and even . . . absenteeism."
After G died, "the staff was in an emotional turmoil for a long
period of time. . . . Along with the relief (that his ordeal was
over) came feelings of guilt and failure."
The turbulence eased, but only after a support group and
counseling session gave staff members a chance to express their
feelings of loss and anger, guilt and sadness.
One of the hardest things, the group agreed, was the lack of a
"I went home after my shift," one nurse said, "and when I came
in the next morning, he was gone. Somebody else was in his room."
Health-care professionals aren't taught how to deal with their
own grieving - nor, usually, with others'. It has been a forbidden
subject; stiff upper lip and all that.
Ten years after she started medical school, Dr. Anne Peters
wrote, "During those years I learned volumes of facts and
information about disease and its many manifestations, but
relatively little about an inexorable part of medicine - death. …