By Ashley Heussner
Most classes begin with students chatting with each other or figuring out if they for- got what assignment was due and preparing for the lecture. Unlike most classes taught at Brookhaven College, however, this particular class deals with an atypical topic – End of Life Issues.
Everyone dies. But talking about death can be difficult. This Health and Human Services class is geared toward nursing students, but anyone can register. Brenda Shupe, the professor, said, “We are living in a death-denying culture. Basically, this means that people are dying, our patients are dying, but nobody’s talking about it.” The End of Life Issues course brings the uncomfortable topic of death to the forefront, encouraging students to come to grips with their own feelings on death.
Lindsey Rodriguez, a Brookhaven nursing student, could relate because of when she was in the hospital caring for a patient. “It gives you real life application when you’re in that situation,” Rodriguez said. “The patient was 94, and nobody was there with her. I was able to sit there, and using what I learned here – the whispering in the ear, positioning them and hopefully making them more comfortable – I was able to use that in practice when she was there by herself. So I felt that this class has been beneficial.”
Students in the End of Life Issues class spend 10 hours at Vitas Hospice to observe how nurses handle death in real situations and also speak to dying patients and their families. One nursing student, Suzanne Tally, felt this experience made her more comfortable in these moments. “Even touching them and being closer physically – before, I probably would have been more standoffish and not felt comfortable holding their hands and fixing their hair.” Tally said. “Now I don’t have any hesitation.”
Students are able to share their own experiences of what they have seen in hospitals, what was beneficial to the patient and what was not. Stephanie Pope, a Brookhaven nursing student, recounted the experience of being in the hospital with a close family member who was terminally ill. She appreciated having the same nurse each time because she became familiar with the nurse’s straightforward conversation and courtesy. The nurse knew it would be the last time the family would see their loved one and made sure the patient was ready to be viewed before the family arrived.
“Until you can reflect on your own mortality, you can’t care for the patient,” Shupe said. Keeping this in mind, she has students self-reflect in her class. Each student writes the words they would want whispered in their ears if they were nearing death. After they have prepared the last words of com- fort they will ever hear, Shupe pairs the class off into groups. Each group takes turns on their respective deathbeds, while the other attempts to comfort the dying student through therapeutic touch to the foot and head, repositioning the person to make them more comfortable and whispering those final words they elected to hear.
Shupe said many students find this class emotional. “They are a little bit nervous coming in, but most students say that it’s their favorite class once they get in,” Shupe said.
She said those in the course gain the tools necessary to use when they are in the hospital or working in hospice. They know how to effectively offer compassion and touch, to help that person die a good death and not be afraid to discuss the topic.