Health Beat: Illness at the holidays helps clarify life’s priorities

Mary Jane Nelson

For three years, I worked the three to eleven p.m. shift on a young adult oncology floor at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Nearly all of our patients were young boys and girls with leukemia or lymphoma.

I loved that shift because it was when families often visited, and in many cases when families left. Between 8 and 11 pm we did our nursing tasks, hanging blood transfusions, or platelets, or chemotherapy.

Cornell resident physicians made rounds and sometimes did procedures. If there was good news or bad news, it was often delivered while parents and siblings were there, and once they left, nurses saw the impact of the news when patients were once again alone. 

Holidays were especially hard.  In the weeks leading up to the holidays, families would make plans and decisions for getting their loved ones home for Christmas Eve, or Chanukah, or New Year’s Eve. 

The patients who remained were there because they were doing badly. Now a nurse for 43 years, all I learned that feeds my spiritual life, I learned first from those young boys and girls. After their family left they were brutally honest about their fears, their grief, and the disappointments they endured over the years of their illness.

When the lights were out and I was sitting there – counting their pulse, or rubbing their feet – they also shared their hopes, the things they believed in that gave them strength. Sometimes it was religion, but more often it was a vague experience of the world as a spiritual being. 

Lewis Thomas would occasionally roam the halls of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, checking on all of the staff and patients in this 20 story hospital.   He was a physician who was also a poet-philosopher. In his lifetime he published nonfiction essays that helped translate the mysteries of science for a broad audience. Nominated for the Pulitzer prize in nonfiction, he was also the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for seven years, including three of the years I worked there as a nurse.

One night, well after midnight, I was writing my notes, always poorly organized with paperwork so I could spend time with my patients.   And I was sad. Our then paper charts were thick and on shelves that divided a long table.

This night, I didn’t know Dr. Thomas was there, and I said to a fellow nurse, “Everyone I’m working with seems so advanced spiritually for their age, I don’t know if it is because of their disease, or if they get sick because their life work is done, because they are so advanced spiritually.” A chart in front of me moved, and Dr. Thomas peeked through the shelf and said, “Darling, if I had my life to live over, as a researcher, that is the question I would ask.”

Illness, especially illness at the holidays, also brings opportunity. All of the ordinary things: Black Friday Christmas sales, getting presents wrapped and distributed, are often put on the back burner. Priorities are made clear. It is time with each other that we want. Time is the only valuable commodity, and while illness often reminds us of that, illness during the holidays makes it even clearer.  

When people talk about what they’ve learned in certain college programs, or internships, or apprenticeships, I often say, “All we really need is human being training.” This is not to discount the value of academic training, but after 43 years as a registered nurse, I believe it whole heartedly. Whether one belongs to a formal religion or church, it is the spirit of the person, in illness and in health, that makes the time we have together so valuable.  

Sogyul Rinpoche, who died this August, was the author of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Once, when I had the honor to see him speak, he told a young coroner that if he was asked to pronounce someone, he should not rely only on the absence of a pulse and breathing, but to sit with the person’s head in his hands, and to wait for the spirit to lift. 

During this time of celebration and remembrance, I hope your spirit sits solidly with you and those you love.

Mary Jane Nealon is the Director of Innovation at Partnership Health Center.  She is a nurse, poet, and writer. Her memoir, Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life, was published by Graywolf Press in 2011.