Melissa Small, RN. (Her college graduation portrait; Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais Illinois, 1985)

(Note: In honor of the observance of National Nurses Week on May 6-12, I have chosen to share a newspaper column of mine that originally ran in the Johnston County Capital-Democrat here in Tishomingo back in our issue of Feb. 20, 1997. I was fortunate enough to later win a First Place award for this piece in the category of Personal Columns from the Society of Professional Journalist’s Oklahoma Pro Chapter at its annual awards banquet in 1998.)

It was a scene she’d witnessed more times since becoming a registered nurse than she cared to admit. 

Lying there in the hospital bed, his gaunt face mostly covered by an oxygen mask, the patient valiantly fought for every breath. But Death was near. She could feel it; she’d felt his presence before. You can only hold him back for so long.

She knew something of this man’s medical history. He’d suffered from emphysema for years – the result, of course, from all those cigarettes. His family had tried to get him to stop for years. It took having to wear an oxygen mask at home to finally get the point across.

That had been bad enough. Recently it had become worse: During a recent check-up, the doctor had found a mass on his lung. That had struck him as funny in a way. The doctor never used the word “cancer”; it was only “a mass.”

And a small mass, at that. At first, anyway. Cause for concern, the doctor had said, but not necessarily for alarm. Just a couple of weeks earlier his daughter and her family had come home for a brief visit. Except for the couple of hours a day he had to wear the oxygen mask,  everything seemed almost normal.

But between then and now that “mass” had suddenly quadrupled in size. There was some concern it might have spread to his brain. His daughter’s family had scarcely settled in back home when they were notified; they’d better hurry back. 

The doctors and other nurses had done everything they knew how to do, made the patient as comfortable as they possibly could. There was no more that could be done. It was only a matter of time now. 

But the nurse had resolved that she would be there for him during those last moments. After all, it was what she had been trained to do. It was one of her least favorite parts of the job – but it was also one of the most important. And she would do it to the best of her ability.

And so she stayed with him all day and into the evening. She held his hand, mopped his brow, talked to him every now and again. She listened intently as the doctor explained that Death would probably come before night fell. She held her breath when she saw the patient fight to take in enough air to say goodbye to his little grandson one last time.

She was standing there in the room talking to his daughter-in-law when his breathing stopped. She stepped out and called for help. Another nurse came in, quickly assessed the situation, shook her head and went to find the doctor. 

A nun stepped into the room – it was a Catholic-affiliated hospital – and said a prayer with the nurse and the daughter-in-law.  They lingered there for a moment, then the nun and the daughter-in-law left and the nurse went about completing the task she had taken upon herself.

Quietly, professionally, as she had done so many times before, she turned off the machines. She removed the oxygen mask. She placed the medical debris in the proper waste can.

Then she brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes, clutched his hand one last time, kissed his forehead and said goodbye. She looked at her husband, standing there on the other side of the room, and asked him to take her home.

And then – and only then – did the tears begin to fall.

She’d watched other patients die before. It’s an unavoidable part of the job. 

But none of those other patients had been her father.

Alvin Ulrich died on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1996. He had lived a total of 75 years, 1 month and 23 days upon this earth.

For 10-3/4 of those years, I was proud to call him my father-in-law.

I can think of nothing in this world more difficult than having to watch a loved one die. Except, maybe, having to watch a loved one watch a loved one die.

(Column copyright © 2013, by John A. Small)