"I watched my mother go through Alzheimer's," confided my elderly patient. "My dad had some form of dementia, too. I'm already fumbling for words, and that terrifies me. I'm 90 years old and realistically, I only have one or two good years left before I start battling big health problems. Stroke, heart attack, dementia; it's just a matter of time, and I do not want to go through that! Do you know of anyone who can help me with an assisted suicide?"
Well, what do you know? Four years in this place, and this is the first time I have ever been asked that question.
In the few seconds before I answer, I am doing a rapid mental assessment to determine whether this patient is at risk for self-harm. That will affect my next move. My gut says no.
How do I feel about assisted suicide? Is that pertinent to this conversation? I decide my own values and opinions need to go on a back burner. I tell the patient this is a new question for me and that I'm not sure where to go with it, but that I will do a little digging and get back to him.
First step: Document the conversation in the chart and give the charge nurse a heads-up.
Second step: Call the chaplain for ideas.
Third step: Leave a note for the physicians to pass along the chaplain's suggestion.
Fourth step: Return to the patient and let him know what steps have been taken.
Do I have opinions on the issue? Absolutely. I have some strong opinions that would fall under the category "Sanctity of Life," and assisted suicide is no exception. Did my patient ask me to share those opinions? Absolutely not. Should I withhold care, or shy away from researching answers as I would do for any other question asked, just because my patient's values do not line up neatly with my own? Again, I say, absolutely not.
My patients deserve the same level of care no matter who they are, why they are there, how they treat me, or what they believe. That is my duty as a nurse, and it is my honor and privilege as a human being providing care for other humans.
Updates and musings from one momma nurse
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