A mentor till the end

Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times
Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

Martha Keochareon, a nurse dying from pancreatic cancer, had one last project – to teach nursing students about death from the patient’s perspective.

The New York Times (NYT) recently featured the moving and inspirational story of Martha who, on her death bed, offered nursing students an opportunity not only to examine her, but to ask anything they wanted about her experience with cancer and dying.

For Martha it was a chance to teach something about the profession she had come to late and loved. She became a nurse at 40, after working for years in a factory.

“When I was a nurse, it seemed like most of the other nurses were never too happy having a student to teach,” she told the NYT. “I loved it.”

This love of mentoring prompted Martha to contact her former nursing school and make an intriguing offer.

“I have cancer and I’m wondering if you’ll need somebody to do a case study on a hospice patient,” she recorded on the school’s answering machine.

The school allocated two students – Cindy Santiago and Michelle Elliott – to be the beneficiaries of Martha’s wisdom.

Seven years before, after Martha had felt sick for several years, a doctor finally ordered a CT scan, and pancreatic cancer was diagnosed. She was 53 and working at a hospital in Charleston, South Carolina. She was told she would likely die within a year or two.

The first emotion she felt after her diagnosis was relief, because she finally knew what was wrong with her. It also put her in an authoritative position to teach students about the challenge of managing late-stage cancer pain in a patient who had outlived her prognosis. Her cancer had spread and there were tumours in her bones and around her throat.

“I forget half the stuff I learned as a nurse, but I remember everything about pancreatic cancer. Because I’m living it,” she said.

Read more about Martha’s final journey at: www.nytimes.com/2013/01/11/us/fatally-ill-and-making-herself-the-lesson.html