In her essay, Constellations (Intima Spring 2015), Julia Sevy captures the struggle for meaning in a loved one’s harrowing diagnosis. “We like to make meaning out of things,” she says, “We like to make shapes out of the stars in the sky and create elaborate stories about how they got there.”
Cancer is rude. It may be silent and sluggish. It may arrive precipitously and take over entire body systems within days. It may be treated with intravenous poison. It may be treated with surgery. It may be treated with high-energy electromagnetic waves. It may be untreatable. Sevy says it best, “It isn’t beautiful.”
This truth became inescapable when I began my nursing career on a cancer and hospice floor. Oncology care is fraught with the observation of suffering. The desire to find meaning in pain converges with the harshness of reality. Why becomes a pervasive and agonizing question.
My piece, Speak, was a cathartic exercise following three shifts with the same patient. He had no tongue, a tracheostomy, a relentless cough that exacerbated the burning pain in his throat, and significant swelling and redness due to radiation treatments. His days were filled with unbearable fits of coughing. He could not speak.
As our time together accrued, we formed our own way of communicating. He had a small whiteboard and dry-erase marker, but he was self conscious about misspelling words. We used hand gestures. I asked yes and no questions. He nodded. I tried to lace together meaning within these small, silent connections. We discovered our teams are rivals. He wrote “need new nurse” in red marker. We laughed, which sent him into another excruciating bout of coughs. I suctioned the thick, blood-streaked secretions from his tracheostomy. The look on his face made me wince. He cried and it made no sound. I thought about the way your throat burns when you cry. My delicate lattice of meaning quickly unraveled.
I am told that what I do helps people. “I am trying to set my telescope up on my slanted roof and point it at something bright, something hopeful,” as Julia says. But some days, I cry on my way home from work and my throat burns.
Laura Anne White works as a registered nurse on an inpatient adult oncology and hospice unit at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Texas. Her writing and artwork have been featured in Hektoen and Recovering the Self. She lives in Minnesota with her plants and bicycle.
© 2017 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine