Seated over a candle-lit dinner on the beach in Aruba a few months ago, I admitted to my husband that I have a suspicion I may die in my 40’s from some horrible accident or cancer diagnosis. I don’t dwell on this, but feel acutely aware of it’s possibility. My grandfather lived to be 103 so most people assume that I will be somewhere around 120 years old when I throw in the towel. But, my experiences in the emergency department (and my love for raw cookie dough and red wine…) leave me unconvinced at times.
Thanatophobia is the “abnormal or persistent fear of one’s own mortality”. A recent article, ‘Death anxiety among emergency care workers‘, draws attention to the issue of thanatophobia, or ‘death anxiety’ among healthcare workers. The constant on-the-job reminder that death is a part of life can lead to emotional stress particularly for emergency personnel. While most people don’t think about death on a daily basis or can keep thoughts in check by pushing them to the back of their mind, emergency healthcare workers are confronted with their own mortality on a near daily basis.
I have treated thousands of patients over the course of my career as an emergency nurse practitioner thus far. Over time, the faces of most patients begin to blend together as our interactions are routine. Of those that remain vivid in my memory will always be the ones who died before their time. The one-year old son of a graduate student mother, the postpartum mother collapsing from a pulmonary embolism, and the 18-year-old college student who drown swimming in the river with friends. I will never forget those faces and families.
While moments like these can certainly be difficult to process and highly emotional, they are why I do what I do. Writing script after script for penicillin to treat dental pain and ordering CT after CT looking for that elusive appendicitis is certainly important, but when I come home most evenings I don’t feel that I’ve done anything that another provider couldn’t have accomplished. I have used my textbook training but not necessarily my talent. Being there for families and walking patients through difficult diagnoses is the rewarding part of my job.
Spending time with people, be they patients or family members, during their last moments are ‘life is beautiful’ moments for me. Emotions, be they happy or sad, remind us we are alive. Death and dying are inevitable realities. I can’t prevent house fires, traffic accidents, or aging, But, when I have the opportunity to make these experiences in some way, somehow, better for a patient and their family, those are the days I wouldn’t trade my job for the world. They give my career the most value.
So, yes, as an emergency nurse practitioner I do have a heightened ‘death anxiety’. I agree with the article that better training in regards to coping skills is in order for nurses faced with end of life realities on a daily basis. But, despite the emotional toll or stress thinking about death may take, helping patients and families through these moments are some of the most important kinds of stress I have in my job.
Does working as a nurse or nurse practitioner give you ‘death anxiety’?
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