Many of the people who came in, both young and old, never left. In some rooms the stench of death hovered with gruesome anticipation over the frames that still breathed: sturdy bodies grown frail, once healthy complexions now pale and sallow. I watched families leave weighted down by grief over the loss of their loved one. The families would leave; but I would remain to deal with this same scene day in and day out.
For almost three years I was a nurse in the cancer ward of major hospitals in Detroit and Chicago. In that time I cared for hundreds of people of all ages, but each person had one thing in common—a cancer that threw them into the battle for just one more breath”: a battle which death would inevitably win. For some it became a desperate struggle just to “buy time.” But for others the response was a bitter fury or a helpless resignation. There were still others, however, who somehow were able to cope and live to the last with confidence and peace.
Some of my experiences are difficult to describe in words. How does one tell of the consuming terror in the eyes of a dying 40-year-old woman? Or the absolute peace in the eyes of a 50-year-old man wracked by constant pain until his death? Who can understand the bitter disappointment of a 23-year old man dying of leukemia weeks before his wedding day? These people did not need a philosopher’s explanations. Any words offered at this time were worse than trite. I learned to understand the pattern of grief. My goal was “to be there,” to reach out as sensitively as possible, to hurt with the grieving, to keep caring and not “turn off” to the suffering.
These objectives required the kind of strength, energy and stamina that I was only able to find outside of myself. I continually drew strength and compassion from God Himself. I could say along with King David, “Thou art my rock and my fortress; for Thy name’s sake Thou wilt lead me and guide me…for Thou art my strength. Into Thy hand I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:3-5). Not only was God my source, but also my example. In the Messiah I found the highest example of compassion and strength.
Many of the doctors and nurses with whom I worked didn’t have that resource of faith. They cared for the dying like mechanics repairing machines: with physical efficiency but emotional detachment. I remember one doctor crying after he lost his first patient. But after just one month of working on my unit, this same doctor had so hardened himself that, one day, his sterile detachment with the terminally ill made me cry.
It was after one of those difficult nights when I lost three of my patients in the span of just one hour that my agnostic co-worker shared her haunting observation: “After five years on this unit, the pattern is just too consistent…the people who have faith in God die differently from those who have no faith. There’s a peace and a capacity to cope that I just don’t see in the others.” Yes, a faith relationship with God makes a very real difference in the final test of life. The reason is summed up in this scripture that points to Messiah:
“Death is swallowed up in victory. Death where is your sting? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Messiah, Jesus” (l Corinthians 15:54-57).