I could smell death even though I was still standing on the narrow stoop of the small Cape Cod. I hadn’t yet knocked and the smell, the cloying, sickening odor of someone dying of cancer, was almost overwhelming.
I’d been a nurse for more than ten years and I’d smelled impending death before, but never like this – always in a hospital room or, more recently as a visiting nurse, in the sick room of a patient dying at home – never while I stood outside, hand raised ready to knock.
In the few seconds it took for me to knock and the door to be opened, I wondered why I was standing there. What was I doing? Why, knowing what I might see inside, had I agreed to come to this house?
I was the visiting nurse liaison for the local hospital. I interviewed patients before their discharge and set up home care services. I was also a member of the Cancer Committee, started by a social worker and the local oncologist. Both had told me I was the perfect choice to make this home visit.
The social worker had received a call from a woman’s family. The family could no longer care for her at home and wanted her placed in the county nursing home. But the woman had not seen a doctor in a decade. Since she was virtually dying of cancer, the oncologist had agreed to be her doctor of record; however, the nursing home needed more – they needed a physical work-up and to get that, the woman had to be admitted to the hospital.
But she needed convincing. Her husband and son had been trying to get her to the hospital but she was refusing. She didn’t want strangers looking at her. She had told her family she didn’t want “to be on display.”
She didn’t want to be seen because she no longer had a face.