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May 10, 2022

The Cigarette

He was young, and had just been diagnosed with brain cancer. He was going into surgery the following day. The kind of surgery that you don’t know how, or if, you will wake up from it.

I was walking down the hallway when I heard yelling and saw an IV pole fly across the hallway from his room.

There was commotion; someone yelled to call security.

I approached his room and he was standing at the end of his bed. Obviously agitated.

I said in a gentle voice. “Hey, what’s going on? Are you ok?”

He said in a not so gentle tone, “ I’m going outside for a cigarette whether anyone likes it or not. You can’t stop me!”

I paused and then asked him if he would like some company.

“I don’t care,” he said, “I’m going with or without you.”

As I walked down the hall with him, I was met with the wide eyes of my coworkers. I could tell what they were asking me, without anyone saying a word.

I nodded …“I’m ok, I’ve got this,” I whispered as I continued down the hall with him to the elevator.

The ride down was silent.

I told him when we got through the entrance, “This is a non-smoking campus, so come this way with me.”

He followed.

I stood in silence as he lit up his cigarette, it began to rain.

I asked him if he wanted to talk about it.

He stood in silence for awhile, looking down, puffing on his cigarette, obviously still agitated.

Continuing to look down, he began to speak in a quiet, shaking voice.

He went on to tell me he was scared, so scared, and the tears started flowing down his face, and I felt them well up in my eyes too as we both stood there in the rain.

I took his hand, and I told him I was so sorry that he was going through this, and he didn’t have to do it alone.

He sobbed, as he threw his half-smoked cigarette on the ground.

I hugged him tight, gave him a moment, and asked if we could walk back to his room.

It was never about the cigarette. That was the only thing he felt like he could control at that moment. He was facing a brutal diagnosis, and the unknown, alone.

Whether he was or not, he felt that way. And for that moment, and the rest of the day, I’m absolutely certain, he felt he was not alone anymore.

That there was someone else in this world that cared.

He wasn’t his disease, although the fear of it and what was to come, had consumed him temporarily.

He was a sentient being, who just wanted to feel heard, acknowledged, important, loved, supported, and cared for.

A human that didn’t want to carry the heavy burden of his fear and grief, alone.

I still wonder, to this day, how it ended up turning out for him. Either way, even if just for that day, he knew someone in this world cared and that he was not alone.

Excellent nursing care is less about the tasks and charting; anyone with some level of intelligence can be trained to do that, and learn to do it well.

But that is only part of it. What it’s about, is doing the actual caring, whatever it looks like on that particular day.

Embodying it.

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