Palliative Care

Memories of Mrs. M

Mrs. M. was a lot like me, a wife and mother in her early thirties.  Unlike me, she was dying of a disfiguring, highly malignant cancer, which had started in a salivary gland.  When I met her she was receiving palliative care and awaiting a transfer to a hospice facility.

She was a silent and lonely figure.  Her family lived 75 miles away.  Her husband came to see her on the weekends, but her three children never came.  I worked the 3 to 11 shift and never saw her with a visitor.  Her isolation was profound. 

The pace on our unit was such that spending much time with her was difficult, so I began spending my dinnertime with her.  She sipped her high calorie drink while I ate my sandwich.  And we talked.  Or rather, she talked.  She told me about her life and her children.  She described the early symptoms of the cancer and the series of mistakes that caused her to be misdiagnosed.  The odor from the open wound on her neck and the swelling of the tissues of her face and neck were terribly distressing to her.

She told me how as the cancer progressed, her appearance changed radically.  She no longer wanted her children to see her.  She wanted their memories of her to be as she used to look, not the way she looked now.  She didn’t want them to be frightened of her.  We talked about how she felt about that.  Mrs. M. was absolutely adamant about her decision and had made peace with it.  She had moved 75 miles away from home to be near her sister so as to avoid the temptation to see her children.  I wondered how I would manage if I were in Mrs. M’s shoes.  I couldn’t bear the thought.

One evening shortly before Mrs. M. was transferred, she told me how she managed to live without the children.  She told me she went back in her memory and re-lived her life.  I asked her what day was the best; she described a summer morning.  The kids were out in the backyard playing, and the baby was taking her nap.  The house was quiet except for the sounds of the children playing.  She could hear the kitchen clock ticking.  She was ironing a dress for her three year old to wear at her birthday party the next day.  She smelled the soapy smell of the ironing.  She was perfectly happy.

Her message to me was simple.  Enjoy the small things, those “moments of time” that are what make up your life, after all.  Try to live in the present.

There was so little I could do for Mrs. M.  There was much that she gave to me.  A message about priorities, about simplicity and about love.

Mary Ann Ford, MAE, RN

Director  (Retired), Riverside School of Professional Nursing


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