Teaching empathy: A dying nurse’s last wish

Topics: Nursing, Patient Experience, Quality, Performance Improvement

Joan MeadowsJoan Meadows, Nursing Executive Center

The New York Times recently reported on a nurse dying of cancer who offered nursing students an intimate window into her life as a patient, sensitizing them to the patient experience beyond a specific diagnosis.

It’s a powerful reminder: every patient has a story to tell. And it brought to mind several lessons from our study, Enhancing the Patient Experience, which equips leaders with best practices for cultivating nurse empathy. Learn how nurse-to-nurse experience sharing, patient storytelling, and shadowing can help nurses consistently view their patients as people—rather than a bed number.

In case you missed the story, we’ve retold it below.

A nurse invites students to learn from her final weeks of life

In November, Martha Keochareon, a 59-year-old nurse dying of pancreatic cancer, called her alma mater to see if any nursing students would be interested in learning from her experience.

According to the Times, the 1993 graduate of Holyoke Community College’s nursing program suggested some of Holyoke’s students may "just want to feel what a tumor feels like" or that the school may "need somebody to do a case study on, a hospice patient."

Traditional nursing school education does not offer students many opportunities to learn about hospice and the experience of dying. The director of the End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium, an initiative of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing to improve palliative care, told the Times, “We live in a death-denying society, and that includes nursing. People have begun to understand it’s important, but we’re nowhere where we need to be at this point.” Part of the challenge is a lack of sufficient clinical settings where students can learn about end-of-life care.

A memorable teacher

After Keochareon’s call to Holyoke, two first-year nursing students began visiting her regularly at her home. The Times reports the students asked Keochareon questions about the disease’s progression and also saw her struggles with pain management first-hand.

In addition to witnessing Keochareon’s experience, the students noticed her caregivers’ exhaustion. A Holyoke counselor told the Times the students learned "the patient isn’t Martha per se; it’s the entire family."

Keochareon died on Dec. 29. At her funeral, her sister explained why she thought Keochareon invited students to learn from her experience. Keochareon wanted to help students understand a cancer patient’s perspective, but her sister said Keochareon also "received a few moments of less pain and I suspect that she received life itself—a few more hours, even days, with purpose," the Times reported.

The two students have returned to the standard nursing curriculum, but they plan to share their experience with Keochareon with their classmates. One student told the Times she would remember Keochareon until the day that she herself died. (Goodnough, Times, 1/10)

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Nursing Executive Center members can download our study, Enhancing the Patient Experience, and the accompanying Patient Experience Toolkit, to access best practices, implementation tools, and more for cultivating caregiver empathy.