God’s Character in the Oncology Unit

Dear Christian Sister,

My first job out of nursing school was working night shift on an oncology floor. Oncology was not my first choice.  By the time I graduated, I had decided pediatrics was the specialty I wanted to pursue. Oncology wasn’t even on my radar. But when I got a phone call from the unit nursing director just a few hours after submitting my online application, and then was offered the job during my interview the following day, I knew God had other plans for me. Plus, I was a brand new nurse with no experience. Who was I to turn down a good job?

From the first night on the floor, my colleagues were so supportive. I always had back-up. Nurses have a reputation for eating their young, but I thank God that was not my experience. Many of the nurses on the unit had graduated from the school I had and everyone was willing to help me or allow me to see and assist with new things.

We were all very familiar with the process of dying and the hospital procedures that went along with it. So familiar, in fact, that very often patients with poor prognoses, who did not have cancer, were admitted to our floor for end of life care. We called it “comfort measures.” It was our job to care for our patient (and their family) in the final days or hours of their life, keeping them comfortable, free from pain, and preserving their dignity. It was a privilege. It was an honor. It was really hard.

I remember the first time one of my patients passed away. A man. One of his sons was asleep at the bedside. I checked in on him during my rounds, very early in the morning. He had passed in his sleep. I didn’t know what to do, and as I so often did, I called my charge nurse for support. Very gently, she asked, referring to his son, “Do you want me to tell him?” I nodded and watched as she so tactfully, so gently woke the man’s son and gave him the news. She was professional but so compassionate. She sat with him and asked questions about the man his father was. She helped him recall good memories. Right there in that room, she helped his son mourn and honor his father’s memory. She was just as gracious with me as she was with him. It was an intimate moment, a sharing of the experience of loss. I stood there helpless. In a profession ruled by procedures & specifics, outlined by a detailed scope of practice, I stood in that room not understanding my role, but learning by observation.

I remember the mother in her early 40s with her sister at her side. I had met her doting husband and beautiful children earlier in the shift. She died early in the morning, with her sister holding her hand. I had to call her husband to tell him the news, even though my Spanish was just as limited as his English. He had gone home to be with his children and prepare them for school the next day. He didn’t answer my calls. His wife’s sister was finally able to reach him and he was in the room in 20 minutes. He was glad that even though he wasn’t there, her sister was with her to the end.

These patients weren’t the only ones we lost. Throughout my time on the unit, we lost young men, young mothers, grandparents, brothers and sisters. I watched as relatives rushed in from out of town. Church members came to visit and pray. Food was shared, prayers were said. Everyone came together to say good-bye, to usher their loved ones into eternity. To celebrate and honor life, but also to grieve its loss.

It was extremely taxing on our staff. It was really difficult for me emotionally. There was a stretch of time where nearly every shift I would have a patient pass away.  Not to mention the physical toll that working night shift takes on your body. After two years on the floor, I said goodbye and moved on to another nursing job.

Reflecting on that time, I can see God’s hand in every shift, every loss, weaving human lives together, accomplishing His plans. But although those 2 years were difficult physically, emotionally & spiritually, I am so grateful for the sanctification the Lord accomplished in me during that time. I am eternally grateful for the lessons these experiences taught me about God’s character.

He has written Eternity on our hearts

Ecclesiastes tells us that God has “set eternity in their heart” (Ecc 3:11). He created us with an inherent understanding of things eternal. Even those who have not heard or have not believed the gospel know that there is more than this world. In the final moments of life, human beings are faced with their mortality and questions of meaning & purpose come to the surface.

Our souls long for something more. This longing can only be satisfied by our Creator. Scripture also tells us that “all of Creation groans,” waiting to be restored, to be absolved of the curse of sin. Jesus will return and make all things new! In our last days, we will all have to face this truth. There is something more. But I urge you not to wait until the end of your days. Seek God now and, if you already know Him, share the gospel with those who don’t.

God is faithful

In Deuteronomy 7, we read how God chose Israel, not because they were the biggest or best people group, but because He loved them and had made a promise to their forefathers. “Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deut 7:9). Time and again, Israel failed in their commitment to God. But He never did. God never fails. And He never will. He is always faithful to His promises.

Likewise, God has chosen us, the members of the body of Christ, His sons & daughters, not because we deserve it, but because He loves us and is faithful to His promises. He is faithful and is with us every day of our lives. Up until the last moment of life on earth and into eternity. What an amazing Creator! We have a perfectly holy God, who sent His Son to walk with sinful humans. Because He loves us. Because He promised a Savior. He does not break His promises. He, in His divine providence, has chosen me, not only to be His daughter, but also to be a tool He uses to accomplish His purposes in our fallen world. This was a truth I clung to in the hardest moments on the oncology floor. God is faithful.

He created us for relationship with Him & with others

The power of “presence” is something we talked about in college. “The power of presence” and “therapeutic communication” were two common phrases in our Christian nursing program. But it wasn’t until I started working with patients and families facing death that I began to fully understand this. Love, grief, relationship are universal, unbound by language. In these moments, demographics don’t bind us: race, religion, language, nor gender takes central importance. Our mortality & humanity bind us, drawing us together as we are faced with one of the only experiences that every human being has in common. I watched nurses, family members, even doctors come together as humans to grieve the loss of life, bound by our humanity, knowing in our souls that this is not how it was meant to be.

Galatians 6 tells us to “bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). We were created to walk through life together. We are commanded to walk through trials and hard times together. To carry the load of suffering and pain with our brothers & sisters in their time of need. We were created for communion both with one another, but also with God. The God we serve is Himself a triune God: One God in three persons. Eternally in communion with Himself. What a joy! We were created to model the amazing God we serve and He has provided for us! Likewise, we draw near to one another and provide for one another in times of joy and times of sorrow.

God really does use our trials & suffering to sanctify us and bring us to greater faith. He uses both difficult times and joyful times to glorify Himself and to show us His character. What has God taught you about His character? How has He sanctified you in difficult times? Encourage someone by telling of the great things God has done in your life. Walk with Him & seek Him every day. Trust in the Lord’s sovereignty & faithfulness. Foster the relationships & community in your life. Glorify Him in all you do.