Just So Lousy… Death Is An Ugly Business

I’ve been looking back on the last year and a half, and it has become mind-boggling how many of my friends (or their close family members), family, former co-workers, and people who were part of my everyday life are now dead.  I don’t really even know where to start.

Most people know that my cousin died on March 2, 2014, so almost two weeks (tomorrow).  She had a  horrendous fight with neuroendocrine colon cancer, with every complication known to nurse-kind.  I was her ‘go to’ person (as she described me) for bouncing around ideas of what might be going on, and getting my take on what the symptoms she was having could mean.  Being eighty miles away didn’t help, but I did what I could, and my standard line was “you probably need to go to the ER” or “It would be a good idea to call your doctor now and let him/her know what’s going on.”  I was glad to be of some use- and it was also hard to know she was going through so much.

During the last twelve to eighteen months, I’ve looked up former coworkers to see if we could reconnect, and ended up finding their obituaries.   I’ve also been informed about friends’ family members- and in the case of two particular children, it was really so incredibly sad.  One died at age eleven from the same leukemia I had- less than a day after being diagnosed. Another child (8 years old) in that same extended family died from brain cancer, less than a year after she was diagnosed.  She had the best treatment there is (St. Jude’s), and she still lost the fight.  Even though their names are available on public ‘search’ links, I won’t post their names because they were minors- and I don’t have the family’s permission to name them.  I remember some kids who died when I was a kid (friend’s brother had a brain hemorrhage, kid at school had a brain tumor, skating coach’s six kids were murdered by her husband)… but as an adult, with the experience of  pediatric nursing-  hearing the screams of the parents when an infant or child died back in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit isn’t something I’ll ever forget.  It was the most guttural, primal PAINFUL sound I think I’ve ever heard.

I am going to name a few of  the people I’ve lost in the past few years, as I have nothing but good to say about them- and they too are easily found when looking their names up.  I hadn’t expected to find their obituaries, but ….

Madeline Spenrath, R.N. was one of my nursing supervisors in Kerrville, TX.  She was one of the best supervisors I ever had anywhere.  She maintained a bit of a strict ‘ship’…but she had a heart of gold.   I reconnected with  her after her breast cancer was found, and after she’d had to have her right hip removed from the socket (along with the whole leg), as the cancer had spread.  It continued to spread, and she eventually died at one of the nursing homes I used to work at (it helped to know she was getting good care).   Madeline was ‘good people’.   She was down to earth, very knowledgable, and could get an IV into a mosquito in motion.  She had amazing BBQs for the night shift crowd every year for a long time- those were great.  She had someone tend the pit, and everyone brought a dish to pass.  She was all about team work, and it was obvious she was an amazing team leader- and player. She wasn’t above getting her hands dirty.

I had started looking for the mom and godfather of a baby I took care of for most of the first 18 months of his life when his mom worked.  I worked 2-12 hour night shifts on the weekends, and his mom worked 3-11 shifts Monday through Friday, so it was perfect.  The first 3-4 months I had him 5 days a week (had the car seat so I could get errands done), then cut back to 3 days a week so I had some time off.  But he was my little angel bug.  He’s about 25 years old now- last time I saw him he was twelve !   Anyway, when I looked up Jae Arkeen and Dana Coy, I found their obituaries.  It stunned me when I later found out that Jae had relapsed into addiction, and had elevated levels of drugs in his system that he wouldn’t have touched when I knew him.  That broke my heart. He had been SO solid in recovery.  It reinforced that ANYONE can relapse and die with drugs and alcohol.  I really don’t think he’d mind me saying that, because he’d know it could possibly reach someone who is rocky in recovery, thinking they’re invincible with their 12-Step Program.  He was the kindest, most caring guy, and thought that his godson hung the moon. He was so funny, and great to work with.  He later worked in a very intense area of counseling, and I’m sure that, along with what seems like some serious instability in his addiction recovery, was very difficult.  I had contact with  someone who had been very close to him (that I didn’t know), via e-mail, and she let me know what happened.  While it was horribly sad, there was some partial comfort in knowing it was fast- at least at the end.  I’m sure there were some painful times emotionally for him to get to that place.  I worked with him on an adolescent psych unit… he was great with those kids before he moved into a much more specialized area that is polarizing, and very difficult. He was outstanding with those kids.

Dana Coy (RN in several psych units over the years) had a very brief obituary.  brief battle with cancer.  She had been divorced from her adopted-at- birth son’s dad for years, though the son kept in contact with him- so after losing two people who were so close, I’m sure it helped to have his dad there with a long history together.  Dana and I didn’t work shifts together… but we saw each other nearly every day when she dropped the baby off (starting at 9 days old since he was adopted, so not much time off for ‘maternity’ leave), and when she’d pick him up, or I’d take him to work to do a ‘hand off’ if I was working an 11-7 during the week.  I liked Dana.  She was very easy to interact with when I took care of her son… not high strung about things, and also appreciative of having an R.N. for a regular babysitter.   I loved the baby as if he were my own.  She knew that- and also knew that I knew my boundaries as ‘the babysitter’… I always asked her before doing anything with him.  Whether it was a trip to the store, or just going to the apartment complex swimming pool, I made sure she was OK with it.

Another shock was finding out that Tricia Heath, the administrator (and an RN) at a really nice nursing home I worked at in Round Rock, TX back in the early ’90s had died. She was so supportive when I was dealing  some personal things, and was just a kind, compassionate person, who wanted the residents in that facility to have the best possible life they could in an institution.   I really cared about her, and when she and her family moved to Memphis, TN for a job her husband was offered, it was so sad to see her go.  As often happens, people say they’ll keep in touch once they get settled, and then life happens, and they’re in the wind.  Back then, there were no internet search engines for finding people, and it was all basically just luck if phone numbers were in the 411 for a particular city.  Tricia was a great administrator- she kept the place in line for state requirements, but she also had a heart.  I had a lot of respect for her.

Madeline, Jae, Dana, Tricia, and Kathy were parts of my life for a long time. Madeline, Jae, Dana, and Tricia were people I saw every day I worked, depending on the schedule I was on. I wonder how all of their families are doing.  When Facebook and other internet ‘reconnection’ things were available, it was like we’d never been away from each other. I got to catch up with Madeline the most… Jae, only once with a postcard from somewhere, and Dana only briefly when her son was twelve, and I was in Austin for a week for my work; they came up to the hotel to see me one evening when there weren’t any seminars scheduled. But it was great to see her, and how much M had grown !      Tricia was harder to track down since she’d moved back to TX.   I could have paid to find out where she was, but there was information on that thing that was really too invasive for just trying to send a ‘hi, how are ya?” kind of note.  And then they were gone.

I stopped looking for people.  I sort of don’t want to know who else is gone. If more people pop up via Facebook, or whatever, that’s great.  But I think I’m done looking.   It hurts.

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In Memory of Madeline Spenrath, R.N.

I just found out on Thursday, April 25, 2013 that one of my favorite nursing supervisors had died.  I’d talked to her several times over the last few years when we were both going through various cancer diagnoses, but hadn’t talked to her in a while.  She had been through breast cancer, and thought she was doing well when she discovered she had bone cancer in her thigh and had to have an amputation at the hip (around 2010).  She went through that with a great deal of grace and dignity.  I’m told that she had recurrence of cancer in her lung and spine.  I can’t imagine what that was like for her. Getting used to her leg prosthesis and wheel chair were hard enough; the leg prosthesis drove her nuts.  She was incredibly independent, and needing help didn’t make her smile.  I can just hear her saying “when I go, just toss me out into the pasture with the horses”.  Down to earth, no frills, and knew SO much about nursing.  I will always have a great deal of respect for her.

Madeline  was a no- nonsense supervisor, but also had a heart of gold. I first met her in in  1991, and while there are many people who knew her much better than I did, she left a definite impact on me, for the better.  I worked at Sid Peterson Memorial Hospital in Kerrville, TX on and off for over 10 years.  Madeline had been there much, much longer, and was a ‘staple’ supervisor on the night shift.   She had her own way of getting report on every patient in the hospital for the next shift’s supervisor (or ‘Number 9’, as they were called at Sid Pete, at least at that time). Some supervisors wanted report from each nurse- Madeline wanted the charge nurse to give the run-down.  SO, I talked to her a lot.  She wanted ‘just the facts’, but also had a really good sense of humor, and if a patient needed something, and she could do it, she’d give it her all.

Madeline could get IVs in just about anybody.  Generally, if someone needed an IV started or restarted, the direct care nurse or charge nurses would get them in.  If that didn’t work- or if someone’s veins were just too puny to go poking around when it didn’t make sense, the charge nurses would call Madeline (or whoever was the supervisor that night).  Madeline could get an IV in the butt vein of a grasshopper. In motion.  She was just that experienced and had all of the tricks down pat.

Madeline used to have incredible BBQs for the night shift staff. They were annual and legendary.  I got to go to one in 1991. She had them in the summer, and would have one of her horses saddled up for anybody who wanted to go for a ride around the farm in Comfort.  I still have a photo of me on one of her palomino horses, in my tennis shoes and t-shirt…. I looked SO not ‘Texas’.  But it was fun 🙂

When Coca-Cola changed their formula back in the 80s, Madeline rode her horse to the town store, and brought home as much of the original formula as she could secure to that horse!  I never heard that she ever smoked or had other vices- but don’t mess with her classic Coke !! 🙂

One night, Madeline called me about a predicament with staffing on the telemetry floor.  Uh oh.  Madeline could get me to agree to a lot of things that I’d normally freak out about (like charging two floors on nights when there were simply no other nurses to cover one of the floors- they were back to back units – 4A and 4B- so I just ran between the two that night; one was my usual floor, and I knew the other staff well enough).  The regular charge nurse on the telly floor had some emergent health situation happen, and they really needed a charge nurse.  I really didn’t read telemetry strips !  I knew ‘OK, looks survivable’ and ‘uh oh’. She reassured me that the monitor techs knew the rhythms and there were standing medication orders that the nurses knew about- I’d be fine. They just needed an RN body to check off orders and be physically present.  Scared the snot out of me, but I went.  Everybody survived the shift 🙂

She hated taking bodies to the morgue in the basement of the old hospital. Madeline would do anything she could for anybody in the hospital, but once she was notified of a death, she’d show up like the wind and drop off the keys to the morgue.  She wasn’t a fearful person but that morgue gave her the willies. I have to admit, it was creepy- it was a ‘one occupant’ room, with shelves along all available wall space that had the specimens from various surgeries… there were gallbladders, appendixes, lungs, and just about anything that could be removed from a body bobbing along in preservative liquid in semi-opaque plastic buckets. You could still tell they were guts.  Named, dated, and labelled.  The first time I went down there, I was very distraught.  I was still shaking the next day, and actually had to leave when I got to work (major chicken-poo reaction). Madeline was on that night, and while she wasn’t amused at me falling apart, she never made me feel ashamed of my reaction. Once I knew what I’d be seeing, I was able to go if I had to help take a body there.

When I was diagnosed with diabetes in 1995, I had just started working at SPMH again (and was diagnosed with diabetes through general pre-employment screenings)… one night I said I felt a little funny, and Madeline went bounding off to the cafeteria to get me a pimento cheese sandwich, in case my blood sugar was getting too low; I was still very early on in being treated, and could sometimes have symptoms even when numbers were decent- my body was just used to having much higher blood sugars.  Being diabetic wasn’t seen as a liability, and I had a great deal of support from Madeline and others there at SPMH.

When Madeline brought a meal for a patient admitted later in the evening or night, she’d bring back  a tray full of food fit for a football player…. her theory- never trust a skinny chef, and make sure they get enough food if they’re hungry.  Never knew when someone sick would either lose their appetite, or have the need for some energy stores.

Madeline loved her horses and cats.  She retired from nursing several years ago, and while she was dealing with a lot of health issues, she always talked about how she was doing with taking care of the horses and cats on her farm. She was deeply saddened when that palomino died… it was one of her favorite horses.  She also volunteered at the local VA hospital, and loved going out there.  She had passion about many things, and when Madeline took to something, she did it with a great deal of satisfaction- and she was good at it.

Madeline was a ‘giver’. I never heard her ask for anything for herself, even when she was going through so many life changes with her health.  When she’d call me, she’d sound upbeat- and she had so many reasons to be bummed.  She’d send funny e-mails, and periodic notes- and never complained.

When Madeline would hear of something just not sounding fair in regards to how someone was being treated after some management changes at the hospital, she felt so badly for them.  Madeline believed in people being accountable- but she also knew that sometimes people got a really raw deal… and it hurt her when they hurt.  One other supervisor comes to mind in regards to that.  We both deeply respected that other person.  Madeline didn’t always wear her emotions on her sleeve, but she was an incredibly caring person who wanted the best for those around her.   Sometimes there might be someone (usually someone who didn’t last long) who drove her a little nuts- but she was always fair if anything came up that involved her input with that person.

I’ve worked with some great people in the years I worked as an RN.  Madeline Spenrath is someone who I will never forget, and am forever grateful for things she taught me.  I became a better nurse and person for having known her.

For those who knew Madeline, and would like to leave a comment about your memories of her, please feel free to do so, and I’ll get them added to the comment section 🙂