While many people work to avoid a conversation about death, others choose to be surrounded by it every day.
Maggie McMeekin is a resource nurse at a JourneyCare in-patient hospice care center in Barrington, where patients go when they are in their final days and no longer want to continue treatment.
McMeekin chose this work after seeing what she says were the sudden and uncomfortable ways that people can die in hospitals. She sees her role as providing the dying and their families comfort in the end. Morning Shift spent a day on the job with McMeekin to better understand her reality.
There are still emails, meetings and schedules
McMeekin’s work days start at 12:30 p.m. They’re spent with patients but also on the phone and in meetings, coordinating admissions with hospitals and asking doctors about medications.
That means her job comes with logistical stressors just like any other profession. And it’s often harder to deal with a busy, understaffed day than it is to deal with the emotional stress, she said.
Keeping a calm demeanor is key to doing her work well, she said, comparing her role to that of a fireman.
“You don’t want them to come and be like ‘Oh my god, you’re going to lose all of your stuff! This is the worst fire! This is my first time at a fire,’” she said. “You want someone to come in and be cool and collected because you’re the one that’s in panic.”
Communication is key — with patients and with family members
When a new patient comes in, McMeekin talks to them about their goals for care, the patient’s symptoms and their understanding of the diagnosis.
Some people “truly don’t realize” why they’re in hospice, but other times it’s the family that’s in denial, she said.
“Everybody knows that they’re dying when they’re dying because they’re not well, they can tell their body is so sick,” she said. “But [it] seems like they’re not talking to their family about it, and their family is not talking to them about it, and I think that everybody knows — it’s just that they’re not willing to talk to each other about it.”
When there’s a gap in communication, McMeekin said she brings in a social worker who can help the family find understanding.
Death is a routine part of the job, but can still take a toll
For McMeekin, the death of children is harder to separate herself from. She remembers one baby, who was brought to hospice care shortly after being born with multiple congenital abnormalities.
“The funeral home came, and they brought their big gurney that they would use to remove anybody from the room, but on it there was this little tiny box,” she said. “And then the funeral home director had to open that little tiny box and put the little baby in it. And I just lost it. I cried.”
She said at that moment she was alone in the room with the funeral director, who also cried, but when then they walked out, they were “back to professional demeanor.”
At the end of the day: exhaustion
When she walked back out into the parking lot at 9:56 p.m. after the end of a particularly busy day, McMeekin said she felt “kind of grouchy” and frustrated.
“I just want to listen to something fun, and really not think about work again for awhile,” she said. “Till tomorrow, I guess.”
Press play above to hear more from McMeekin’s workday. If you’re interested in hearing more from people who deal with death in their work, here’s Morning Shift’s interview with Dr. Jalal Baig, a Hematology and Oncology Fellow at University of Illinois-Chicago.
For more from Morning Shift‘s weeklong series on discussions about death and dying, visit wbez.org/deathconvo.