Teaching What Is Un-Teachable

Poet Emily Dickinson called death “the only One You cannot find out all about.” While modern medical education is very good at teaching the technical aspects of diagnosis and treatment, there are equally important aspects of patient care—namely, real patients’ lived experiences of illness—that cannot be illuminated by a textbook or lecture. The principle of “attending” to patients by learning from them is at the core of all the work we do at CCM. And so I was moved and heartened to read Abby Goodnough’s article about a dying nurse who, as a final service to her profession, offered herself to her young colleagues seeking to better understand the experience of a terminally ill patient.

As I was reading this piece I couldn’t help but think about everything I have learned and continue to learn from patients. But one patient in particular came to mind. Adrienne, who graciously shares her experience in our Voices From The Lived World of Illness DVD, had been working as a nurse for years when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her professional training gave her an understanding of the medical issues, but when it came to the subject of facing her own death, she said, “I never died before.  I wish there were someone out there who’d done it that I could ask to come over here and tell me how you do it.”

How remarkable that this nurse is attempting to do just that.