Patients who are sick or dying don’t have time to pretend and at the same time, they don’t have patience for someone who is helping them to be false either. The false assurances, the pretense of caring and the hiding of the truth from patients causes them not only to be fearful, but to be impatient and frustrated with people they need to trust. So if you listen carefully, you’ll be able to hear lots about yourself that you might be hiding from yourself. Your patients can slice right through your denial if you are willing to look at yourself.

One afternoon as I was doing private duty nursing, I was sitting next to an old man, Mr. Fulton, who was dying of cancer. He was grey skinned and sucking on oxygen, having great difficulty breathing. Much of the day he appeared asleep.

I didn’t want to leave him alone to go for lunch and so I pulled an apple out of my backpack and was just about to take a bite of it when Mr. Fulton lifted himself up and looked at me.

“Do you want a piece?” I asked him, smiling.

He shook his head.

“You don’t like apples?” I asked.

“I love apples,” he said, breathing hard.

“Well then, why don’t you want a piece?” I asked him.

“I want the whole apple,” he said, snapping at me. “I want to hold the apple, and bite it and smell it before I taste it.”

I actually hesitated before I recovered enough to tease him and say, “I haven’t had lunch and you want the only thing I have to eat?”

“You can have lunch tomorrow,” he said.

And there went my apple.